Despite seriously strained US-Russian foreign relations, an American astronaut joined two Russian cosmonauts aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in Kazakhstan and rocketed into orbit on a two-orbit flight to the International Space Station on Wednesday.
With Commander Sergei Prokopiev at the controls, co-pilot Dmitri Petlin to the left and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio to the right, the Soyuz 2.1a rocket roared to life at 9:54 AM ET (6:54 PM local time). and smoothly ascends from its firing stand at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
The three crew members appeared relieved in the cockpit video as they monitored their instruments, marking milestones on their way to orbit. Eight minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff, the third stage of the Soyuz booster separated, the solar panels were exposed, and the spacecraft took off after the space station.
The launch was timed to enable a fast-track two-orbit rendezvous process, allowing Prokopiev and his crewmates to make contact with the orbital outpost more than three hours after launch. The rendezvous went off without a hitch, and the Soyuz proceeded to dock with the Rasvet module’s Earth-facing port at 1:06 pm ET.
“We saw a spectacular view of the #Soyuz launch!” station astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti tweeted. “Sergei, Dimitri and Frank will be knocking on our door in just a few hours… looking forward to welcoming them to their new home!”
Welcoming them aboard were Expedition 67 commanders Oleg Artemiev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov, who had sailed aboard the Soyuz MS-21/67S ferry last March. Also aboard the ISS: SpaceX Crew 4 Commander Kjell Lindgren and his three crewmates, Robert Hines, Jessica Watkins and European Space Agency astronaut Cristoforetti.
Rubio will be part of the US-sponsored crew complement, though 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 to relaunch astronauts aboard the Soyuz and to begin carrying astronauts aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.
The goal is to ensure that a crew member from each country is always on board the station, even if a Soyuz or NASA ferry ship is forced to leave early in an emergency, carrying its crew back to Earth.
“In terms of the ISS, I think it’s very important that it gives us the ability to respond to unforeseen circumstances,” Rubio said in a pre-launch interview with CBS News. “Basically, it gives us a backup plan.”
The arrival of the new Soyuz crew sets up a carefully choreographed sequence to replace the seven members of the station’s current crew.
If all goes well, Artemiev, Korsakov and Matveev will return to Earth on September 29, landing in the steppes of Kazakhstan to end the 194-day mission.
Four days later, Crew Dragon Endurance is scheduled to launch from Florida carrying Crew 5 commander Nicole Mann, pilot Josh Kasada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and Russian astronaut Anna Kikina. Including a piloted test flight, the launch will mark SpaceX’s seventh crewed station mission.
After a week-long handover to help their replacements familiarize themselves with station operations, Lindgren, Hines, Watkins and Cristoforti will return to Earth on October 10 aboard their own Crew Dragon-Freedom to close out a 166-day mission that began Last April.
Kikina is the first astronaut to be assigned to a Crew Dragon flight and the first to board an American spacecraft since December 2002, when the shuttle Endeavor carried one astronaut to the station and brought two others back to Earth. Kikina will live and work in the Russian segment, although he will remain a member of the SpaceX crew.
Between the retirement of the shuttle in 2011 and the debut of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft carried joint crews to the lab complex, which began carrying astronauts into orbit in 2020. Each of these seats cost NASA up to $90 million dollars.
For the past two years, NASA managers have worked with their Russian counterparts to strike a deal to begin swapping seats, sending one NASA astronaut to each Soyuz station and one astronaut aboard each Crew Dragon. No money changes hands as both parties benefit.
Because the crew must launch and land in the same vehicle, a medical emergency or other major problem could force a crew 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 always on board stations to operate their respective systems.
The Russians provide the propellant and rocket power needed to keep the station in orbit and avoid space debris, while NASA provides most of the lab’s electrical power, near-continuous communications and massive gyroscopes that keep the outpost properly oriented. Crews are not cross-trained to operate each other’s systems.
Kikina is the first astronaut to fly under the recently signed seat swap agreement, and Rubio is the first American to board the Soyuz when astronaut Mark Vande Hey embarks on a station flight in April 2021.
The deal took longer than expected because the Russians first wanted to assess the security of the Crew Dragon system and then because of increasingly tense relations in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Rubio has moved the negotiations forward.
“It’s important to realize that there is a long history of collaboration spanning more than 20 years working together on the Apollo-Soyuz program, the Shuttle-Mir program and now the ISS,” he said.
“It builds camaraderie and trust in a way that’s very important to maintain, especially in moments when there’s tension and other aspects. So I’m very honored to represent our nation, and I’m proud to be here. I think it’s a good thing. Can’t stress enough.”