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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Astronauts Blast Off for Christmas Trip to Space

APSoichi Noguchi waving during the inspection of his space suit Monday.

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan — A Soyuz rocket blasted off from a cosmodrome in Kazakhstan lighting up the frigid steppe Monday, shuttling a Russian, a Japanese and an American to the International Space Station.

Standing in the early morning cold, the astronauts’ families 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 following the early-hours launch, the first-ever blastoff of a Soyuz rocket on a winter night.

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

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

A NASA television 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 about 500 meters per second.

The Soyuz will travel for about two days before docking with the space station 350 kilometers above Earth.

Reporting to Russian space officials prior to the launch, the astronauts seemed calm and relaxed. Speaking 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 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.

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.