BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan - A three-man crew successfully blasted off into space with the Olympic torch on Thursday, ready to take it on its first space walk in what they said would be a "spectacular" showcase for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Japan's Koichi Wakata pumped the air with his fist as the Soyuz rocket, painted with snowflake patterns, took off on a crisp morning, an onboard camera showed. The crew sat beneath a stuffed polar bear wrapped in a blue scarf, a Sochi mascot.
The space flight is part of what will be the longest torch relay before a Winter Olympics, which President Vladimir Putin hopes will boost Russia's image and show what it can achieve.
Less than six hours after the launch, Russian Mikhail Tyurin, American Rick Mastracchio and Wakata will deliver the torch to the International Space Station.
"It's just an outstanding day and a spectacular launch," William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told Reuters.
"I get the privilege of understanding what goes on behind the scenes ... It's not easy and it is not routine. It is still a marvel to me when I see it."
Their families and other spectators watched the rocket disappear into the blue sky, leaving a trail of blazing light. Mission control announced: "Soyuz TMA-11M is in the orbit" to applause.
For safety reasons, the torch will not be lit in what could be a relief for Russia after the flame went out several times since the relay began last month.
"We will have a kind of relay of our own with this torch," veteran cosmonaut Tyurin, 53, told a news conference at the Baikonur cosmodrome, which Moscow rents from Kazakhstan, on the eve of his launch.
Tyurin will hand off the torch to fellow cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky, who will take it outside the airlock on Saturday.