BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan - An American, a Russian, and an Italian blasted off into the darkness early Thursday on a mission to the International Space Station, their Russian-made Soyuz spacecraft casting a warm orange glow over the chilly plains of Kazakhstan.

Russia's Dmitry Kondratyev, NASA astronaut Catherine Coleman, and the European Space Agency's Paolo Nespoli of Italy - at 6-foot-4 one of the tallest to go into space - rode up on the Soyuz TMA-20, which is to dock at the orbiting laboratory Friday.

Nespoli has described riding in the Soyuz as similar to squeezing into a small car.

The launch kicked off with a white flash and a roar. Within seconds, the rocket was a blur of flames fading into the distance.

Officials at the viewing platform gave status updates at 20-second intervals over loudspeakers until reaching the nine-minute mark, indicating the ship had reached the relative safety of orbit, prompting a lively round of cheers.

At that moment, a plush toy tiger that Coleman took as the crew's mascot began floating in front of her, signaling the beginning of weightlessness as the spaceship reached an altitude of more than 125 miles above Earth, according to NASA television footage.

The departure of the Soyuz had been pushed back several days due to the last-minute replacement of its reentry module, which had been damaged during unloading earlier this year at the Baikonur cosmodrome in the Central Asian steppes.

Replacing a key module so late in the launch schedule had caused apprehension, although Kondratyev shrugged such worries off at a final news conference. "All the procedures needed to check the integrity of the ship have been completed, and all those have shown positive results," Kondratyev said.

The launch took off from the same pad used to send Russia's Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961, making him the first human in space.

The Soyuz crew will be at the space station in April to mark the 50th anniversary of that mission. International space operations will enter a new phase next year after the U.S. shuttle fleet is mothballed. Two more shuttle missions are planned, after which the Soyuz will be the only vehicle available to transport crews to the orbiting laboratory.