A Russian rocket blasted off from a cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and hurtled spaceward Monday, shuttling an American, a Russian and a Japanese to the International Space Station.
The Soyuz TMA-17's three astronauts will take the orbiting laboratory'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, Soichi Nohuchi and Oleg Kotov are to join current inhabitants, American Jeff Williams and Russian Maxim Surayev, who have been alone on the space station for three weeks.
A NASA television Webcast showed the crew giving a thumbs up sign as the vessel thundered skyward.
The Soyuz will travel for about two days before docking with the space station 220 miles (350 kilometers) above Earth.
Striking a festive mood, the space station this week beamed a video Christmas greeting to Earth.
On its Web site, the U.S. space agency NASA has created a series of virtual postcards for members of the public to send to the space station with their holiday greetings.
The first space station crew arrived in 2000, two years after the first part was launched. Until this year, no more than three people lived up there at a 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.
On the Net: