Astronauts blast off for Christmas space mission
1st ever Soyuz launch on a winter night
A Russian rocket blasted off from the cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday, lighting up the frigid Central Asian steppe as it shuttled an American, a Russian and a Japanese to the International Space Station.
Standing in the early morning cold, the astronauts' family and friends watched as the Soyuz craft soared atop a tower of bright orange flames.
The Soyuz TMA-17's three astronauts will take the orbiting space station's permanent crew to five following the early-hours launch, the first-ever blastoff of a Soyuz rocket on a winter night.
Timothy J. Creamer, Oleg Kotov and Soichi Noguchi are to join the station's current inhabitants, American Jeff Williams and Russian Maxim Surayev, who have been the only astronauts on the space station for the last three weeks.
This was a "spectacular launch, a great Christmas present," NASA spokesman Rob Navias said after space officials confirmed the rocket had entered orbit. "A great way to finish the year."
A NASA webcast showed the crew giving a thumbs up sign as the vessel hurtled skyward.
One minute into the launch, the rocket reached a speed of around 500 meters per second.
The Soyuz will travel for about two days before docking with the space station 350 kilometres above Earth.
Reporting to Russian space officials prior to the launch, the astronauts seemed calm and relaxed.
Speaking fluent Russian, Creamer thanked technical staff for their role in preparing for the expedition.
One of the crew's tasks will be to assist in the delivery of a module, complete with a seven-window cupola for prime Earth gazing, when the space shuttle brings it to the space station in February, Navias said.
Striking a festive mood, the space station this week beamed a video Christmas greeting to Earth.
On its website, NASA has created a series of virtual postcards for members of the public to send to the space station with their holiday greetings.
Creamer, who is making his maiden voyage to space, has promised to keep people back on Earth up-to-date via Twitter.
In a message posted from his mobile device just hours before the launch he wrote, "Will tweet soonest. Happy & safe holidays to all!"
Noguchi is heading back to space for his second time and has become the first professional Japanese astronaut to fly aboard the Soyuz.
Until this year, no more than three people lived aboard the space station at one time, although there were as many as six people aboard for short periods when a space tourist would go up with one crew, spend a week or so aboard and come back with another crew.
With the U.S. shuttle fleet set to be grounded soon, NASA and other international partners will have to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry their astronauts to the space station and back.