Despite strained US-Russian foreign relations, an American astronaut joined two Russian cosmonauts aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in Kazakhstan and entered orbit Wednesday on a two-orbit flight to the International Space Station.
With commander Sergey Prokopyev at the controls, and co-pilot Dmitry Petelin flanked by NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, the Soyuz 2.1a rocket went live at 9:54 a.m. ET (6:54 p.m. local) and gently climbed away from its firing stand at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
The three crew members appeared relaxed in cockpit video as they monitored their instruments, describing the milestones on the way to orbit. Eight minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff, the Soyuz separated from the third booster stage, the solar panels did not retract and the spacecraft left the space station.
The launch was timed to enable a rapid two-orbit rendezvous procedure, allowing Prokopyev and his colleagues to catch up with the orbital outpost a little more than three hours after launch. The rendezvous went off without a hitch, and the Soyuz walked in to dock at the port of the Rassvet module on Earth’s face at 1:06 pm ET.
“We had an amazing view of the #Soyuz launch!” station astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti tweeted. “Sergey, Dmitry and Frank will be knocking on our door in a few hours… looking forward to welcoming them to their new home!”
Standing to welcome them on board were Expedition 67 commander Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov, who launched last March aboard the Soyuz MS-21/67S ferry. Also on board the ISS: SpaceX Crew 4 commander Kjell Lindgren and his three colleagues, Robert Hines, Jessica Watkins and Cristoforetti, an astronaut from the European Space Agency.
Rubio will be part of the US-sponsored team, although he will remain a member of the Soyuz MS-22/68S crew. His seat is the first under a new agreement between NASA and the Russian space agency that once again succeeded in sending astronauts aboard the Soyuz and to begin carrying cosmonauts on SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.
The goal is to ensure that one crew member from each country is always on board the station even if a Soyuz or NASA shuttle is forced to leave early in an emergency, bringing its crew back to Earth together with her.
“From the perspective of the ISS, I think it’s very important in that it gives us redundancy and the ability to respond to unexpected circumstances,” Rubio said in a pre-launch interview with CBS News. “Basically, it gives us a backup plan.”
With the arrival of a new Soyuz crew, a carefully choreographed sequence is arranged to replace the station’s current seven crew members.
If all goes well, Artemyev, Korsakov and Matveev will return to Earth on September 29, landing on the Kazakh steppe to complete the 194-day mission.
Four days later, the Crew Dragon Endurance is scheduled to launch from Florida carrying Crew 5 commander Nicole Mann, pilot Josh Cassada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina. Including a pilot test flight, the launch will mark SpaceX’s seventh crewed station mission.
After a week-long shift to help brief their representatives on station operations, Lindgren, Hines, Watkins and Cristoforetti will reach Earth on October 10 aboard their own Crew Dragon – Liberty – to end 166 day mission that started with launch. Last April.
Kikina is the first cosmonaut assigned to a Crew Dragon flight and the first to pilot an American spacecraft since December 2002 when the shuttle Endeavor carried one cosmonaut up to the station and returned two others to to the Earth. Kikina will live and work in the Russian sector, although she will remain a member of the SpaceX team.
Russian Soyuz spacecraft carried crews to the laboratory complex between the retirement of the shuttle in 2011 and the debut of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which began carrying astronauts into orbit in 2020. Those seats cost NASA up to $90 million each.
For the past two years, NASA managers have worked with their Russian counterparts to reach an agreement to begin swap-seat swaps, sending one NASA astronaut aboard each Soyuz bound for the station and one cosmonaut aboard each Crew Dragon. No money would change hands because both sides benefit from it.
Because crews must launch and land on the same vehicle, a medical emergency or some other major problem could force one crew to leave the station and return to Earth sooner than expected. The seat-swapping agreement ensures that one NASA astronaut and one cosmonaut are always aboard the station to operate their respective systems.
The Russians provide the propulsion and rocket power needed to keep the station in orbit and avoid space debris, while NASA provides most of the laboratory’s electrical power, near-continuous communications and the giant gyroscopes that keep the station afloat. correctly oriented outpost. Crews are not trained to operate each other’s systems.
Kikina will be the first cosmonaut to fly under the recently signed seat-swapping agreement and Rubio will be the first American to ride on a Soyuz since astronaut Mark Vande Hei left on a station flight in April 2021.
The deal took longer than expected because the Russians first wanted to assess the safety of the Crew Dragon system and then because of increasingly strained relations following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Rubio negotiated a pullout.
“It is important to understand that there is a long history of cooperation back to the Apollo-Soyuz program, the shuttle-Mir program and now 20 years more working together on the ISS,” he said.
“It builds friendship and trust in a way that’s very important to maintain, especially at times like this when there’s tension and other elements. So I’m honored to represent our nation, and I’m proud to be here. I can’t stress how good I think this is.”
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