Despite deeply strained foreign relations between the United States and Russia, an American astronaut joined two Russian cosmonauts aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in Kazakhstan and blasted a rocket into orbit on Wednesday on a two-orbit trip to the International Space Station.
With Commander Sergei Prokopyev at the controls, left by co-pilot Dmitry Petlin and right by NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, the Soyuz 2.1a rocket sprang to life at 9:54 a.m. ET (6:54 p.m. local) and ascended Smoothly away from the launch pad at the base of the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
All three crew members seemed relaxed in the cockpit video watching their instruments, marking landmarks on their way to orbit. Eight minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff, the Soyuz spacecraft detached from the third stage of the crane, the solar panels ripped off and the spacecraft sped past the space station.
The launch was timed to enable a quick rendezvous of the orbiters, allowing Prokopyev and his colleagues to catch up with the orbital position a little more than three hours after launch. The appointment took off unimpeded, and a Soyuz slid to dock at the ground-facing port of the Rassvet unit at 1:06 p.m. ET.
“We had a great view of the launch of #Soyuz!” Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti tweeted. “Sergey, Dmitriy and Frank will be knocking on our door in just a couple of hours…and we look forward to welcoming them to their new home!”
Standing ready to welcome them on board were the captain of Expedition 67 Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveyev and Sergei Korsakov, who were launched last March on board the Soyuz MS-21 / 67S. Also aboard the International Space Station: SpaceX Crew 4 Commander Kjell Lindgren and his three colleagues, Robert Heinz, Jessica Watkins and Cristoforetti, ESA astronauts.
Rubio will be part of the US-sponsored crewmember, although he will continue to be a crew member of the Soyuz MS-22/68S. Its seat is the first under a new agreement between NASA and the Russian Space Agency to resume launching astronauts aboard a Soyuz ship and begin transporting astronauts aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.
The goal is to ensure that a crew member from each country is always on board even if a Soyuz or NASA ferry ship has to leave early in an emergency, while bringing its crew back to land with it.
“From the ISS side, I think it’s very important because it gives us redundancy and the ability to respond to unforeseen circumstances,” Rubio said in an interview with CBS News before launch. “Essentially, he gives us a backup plan.”
The arrival of the new Soyuz crew forms a carefully designed sequence to replace all of the station’s current crew of seven.
If all goes well, Artemyev, Korsakov and Matveev will return to Earth on September 29, landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan to finish a 194-day mission.
Four days later, the Crew Dragon Endurance is scheduled to launch from Florida with 5 crew leader Nicole Mann, pilot Josh Casada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina. Including a test flight, the launch will see SpaceX’s seventh manned station mission.
After a week-long delivery to help familiarize their alternatives with station operations, Lindgren, Hines, Watkins and Cristoforetti will disembark and return to Earth October 10 aboard the Crew Dragon – Freedom – to finish the 166-day mission that began with launch last April.
Kekina is the first astronaut to be commissioned for a Crew Dragon flight and the first to board a US spacecraft since December 2002 when the shuttle Endeavor carried one astronaut to the station and returned two others to Earth. Kikina will live and work in the Russian part, although she will remain a member of the SpaceX crew.
Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft carried joint crews to the laboratory complex between the shuttle’s retirement in 2011 and the advent of the first SpaceX Crew Dragon, which began taking astronauts into orbit in 2020. Those seats have cost NASA up to $90 million each .
Over the past two years, NASA administrators have worked with their Russian counterparts to reach an agreement to begin seat swaps, launching one NASA astronaut aboard each Soyuz and one astronaut aboard each Dragon crew. No money will be changed because both sides benefit.
Since the crews must take off and land on the same vehicle, a medical emergency or other major problem could force a crew member to leave the station and return to Earth earlier than planned. The seat swap agreement ensures that at least one NASA astronaut and one astronaut are on board the station at all times to operate their own systems.
The Russians provide the thrust and missile force needed to keep the station in orbit and dodge space debris while NASA provides most of the electrical power for the laboratory, near-continuous communications, and huge gyroscopes that keep the outpost properly oriented. Crews are not cross-trained to operate each other’s systems.
Kekina is the first astronaut to fly under the recently signed swap seat agreement while Rubio is the first American to board a Soyuz since astronaut Mark Vande He took off on a station flight in April 2021.
The agreement 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 in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Rubio took the protracted negotiations step by step.
“It’s important to realize that there is a long history of collaboration going back to the Apollo Soyuz programme, to the Mir shuttle program and now more than 20 years of working together on the International Space Station,” he said.
“It just builds camaraderie and trust in a way that is very important to maintain, especially in moments like this when there are tensions and other aspects. So I am very honored to represent our nation, and I am proud to be here. I cannot stress enough how much good I think it is. “.