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New port on its way to space station

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MOSCOW — A Russian Soyuz rocket blasted off Saturday with a new, three-berth docking port, rocketing toward the international space station after a last-minute repair of the booster's control system.

The rocket lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakstan at 3:35 a.m. Moscow time Saturday, and its flight into orbit was monitored at Russia's Mission Control outside Moscow.

The rocket was carrying the Progress M-CO1 cargo ship with the Pirs (Pier) docking port attached to it instead of the regular fuel tank and cargo section, said Mission Control spokesman Valery Lyndin. It is scheduled to dock with the orbiting station at 5:05 a.m.

A check of the booster on the launch pad revealed a flaw in its control system, which technicians fixed. Final tests confirmed that the rocket's systems were in order, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported, quoting cosmodrome officials.

The docking port will be attached to the Zvezda (Star) Russian-built segment of the ISS and will have a capacity to accommodate three Soyuz or Progress space ships. It can also be used as a pressure chamber where cosmonauts prepare for spacewalks.

Lyndin said that the current ISS crew, NASA skipper Frank Culbertson and Russians Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin, was scheduled to make three spacewalks, the first of them next month.

The Progress was also carrying a small crane to be installed outside the space station, a new spacesuit along with spares and other equipment for spacewalks, and French and German scientific gear.

With space station budget overruns topping $4 billion over the next five years, NASA is being forced to scale back on research and commercial uses of the space station to meet U.S. President George W. Bush's budget. The planned cuts would also eliminate a U.S.-funded lifeboat for the space station and living quarters that would accommodate seven people.

The cuts have caused concern among the 15 other participants in the project, who fear they would mean fewer seats for their astronauts and less opportunity for research. Russia has offering to help out by providing a cheap substitute for the U.S. components.