Baikonur, Kazakhstan A Russian rocket lifted off Wednesday, carrying three crew members to the international space station, but Russia's space chief warned that Moscow may scale down its participation in the project because of U.S. cutbacks.
The Soyuz FG rocket blasted off on schedule from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, said Nikolai Kryuchkov, a spokesman for Russia's mission control center outside Moscow. The craft is due to dock with the space station at midnight Friday, he said.
The crew includes Capt. Sergei Zaletin, Belgian first flight engineer Frank de Winne of the European Space Agency and second flight engineer Yuri Lonchakov.
However, Russian Aerospace Agency Director Yuri Koptev said that Moscow may reduce its contribution to the international space station in connection with the U.S. decision to cut funding for the project.
"If the U.S. position does not change, Russia reserves the right to revise its participation in the ISS project by reducing the number of launches," Koptev said after the launch, according to the Interfax news agency.
In response to an independent task force review, the Bush administration's 2003 budget reduced the spending for the space station by $229 million, a 13.3 percent cut.
Russia is supposed to provide at least four Progress cargo ships and two Soyuz crew capsules for the ISS every year, but funds allocated for next year would buy only two cargo ships, the agency said last month.
Lack of funds has dogged the Russian space program in the decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union and interfered with its contributions to the 16-nation space station project. The station's crew module was sent into orbit in 2000 after more than two years of delay caused by Russian funding shortages.
Two "space tourists" have paid $20 million apiece for trips to the space station. A deal to send 'N Sync singer Lance Bass to the station this fall fell through when the $20 million ticket price could not be raised.
A Soyuz crew capsule docks with the orbiting station about twice a year to bring a replacement crew and remains hooked up as an emergency rescue vehicle. NASA has shelved its earlier plan to build its own lifeboat for the ISS because of funding cuts, limiting the station's permanent crew to three the number of seats in the Soyuz instead of six as originally planned.
Koptev reiterated Russia's proposal for NASA to have two Soyuz capsules permanently attached to the station, provided that the U.S. space agency pays for the second.
Wednesday's blastoff of the Soyuz originally had been scheduled for Monday but was postponed after an accident on Oct. 15, when an unmanned Soyuz-U rocket blew up seconds after liftoff.
Space officials said this week that a foreign object was found in the rocket's fuel line, and the investigation was continuing.