* Launch is the first since U.S. shuttle programme retired
* Problems could leave station empty for first time in
MOSCOW Nov 14 Three astronauts will take
off on Monday returning a full crew to the International Space
Station (ISS) after the crash of a Russian cargo spaceship
disrupted operations and undermined faith in the Russian space
The launch at 0414 GMT is the first since NASA ended its
30-year shuttle programme in July, heralding a gap of several
years when the 16-nations investing in the $100-billion space
station will rely solely on Russia to ferry crews.
Any problem with the launch could leave the space station
empty for the first time in more than a decade when the current
three-man crew returns to Earth later this month.
Monday's mission was delayed from September over safety
fears after a Russian Progress craft taking supplies to
astronauts broke up in the atmosphere in one of the worst
Russian space disasters in decades.
For veteran NASA astronaut Daniel Burbank, it is the first
voyage on board a Soyuz spacecraft from Russia's Baikonur
launchpad in Kazakhstan, while cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and
Anton Shkaplerov are making their maiden space voyage.
But the crew shrugged off safety concerns before lift off.
"We don't have any black thoughts. We have faith in our
equipment," Shkaplerov said, quoted by Russian news agencies.
After a cramped two-day journey aboard the Soyuz TMA-22
capsule, the crew will dock with the space station on Nov. 16,
overlapping briefly with station commander Mike Fossum of NASA,
Japan's Satoshi Furukawa and Russia's Sergei Volkov.
Russia's space agency chief said the Aug. 24 rocket failure
was an "isolated" glitch caused by a fuel pipe blockage.
But it added to a string of failures that marred this year's
celebration of the 50 years since Yuri Gagarin's pioneering
orbit and pointed to deeper troubles with Russia's space
Moscow hopes a smooth mission will begin to restore its
reputation after more trouble this week when a launch touted as
post-Soviet Russia's interplanetary debut went awry.
Russia has likely lost the $165-million Phobos-Grunt probe,
which is stuck in orbit and may drop to Earth after it failed to
set a course toward Mars' moon after launch on Wednesday.
Botched launches have also lost Russia a high-tech military
orbiter, a costly telecommunication satellite and set back plans
for a global navigation system to rival the U.S. GPS.
While NASA suffered the tragic loss of crews on its Columbia
and Challenger shuttles in 2003 and 1986, Russia last suffered
such an accident in 1971 when three cosmonauts died on their way
back to Earth on the Soyuz-11 mission.
This year the United States turned over all crewed flight
responsibilities to Russia, at a cost of about $350 million a
year, until commercial firms can offer space-taxi rides.
NASA is seeking $850 million to help U.S.-based private
companies develop human orbital transport capabilities with the
goal of breaking Russia's monopoly on ferrying astronauts to the
space station before the end of 2016.
(Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Janet Lawrence)