Astronauts blast off on Christmas mission

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan — A Russian rocket blasted off from a cosmodrome in Kazakhstan lighting up the frigid Central Asian steppe today, shuttling 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 laboratory's permanent crew to five, although there have been up to six there temporarily.

Timothy J. Creamer, Soichi Noguchi and Oleg Kotov are to join the current inhabitants, American Jeff Williams and Russian Maxim Surayev, who have been alone on the space station for three weeks.

Noguchi is heading back to space for his second time and has become the first professional Japanese astronaut to fly aboard the Soyuz.

This was a "spectacular launch, a great Christmas present," NASA spokesman Rob Navias said after space officials confirmed the rocket had entered into orbit. "A great way to finish the year."

A NASA television Webcast showed the crew giving a thumbs up as the vessel hurtled skyward.

One minute into the launch, the rocket reached a speed of around 1,640 feet per second.

The Soyuz will travel for about two days before docking with the space station 220 miles above Earth.

One of the main goals of the expedition will be to deliver a full-fledged module to the space station, complete with a seven-window cupola for prime Earth gazing, Navias said.

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Send holiday cards

On its Web site, NASA has created a series of virtual postcards for members of the public to send to the space station with their holiday greetings. American Timothy J. 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!"

Astronauts blast off on Christmas mission 12/20/09 [Last modified: Sunday, December 20, 2009 9:44pm]

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