Despite tensions, NASA astronaut joins Russian cosmonauts for flight to space station
Despite severely strained U.S.-Russian foreign relations, an American astronaut joined two Russian cosmonauts aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in Kazakhstan and rocketed into orbit Wednesday on a two-orbit flight to the International Space Station.
With commander Sergey Prokopyev at the controls, flanked on the left by co-pilot Dmitry Petelin and on the right by NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, the Soyuz 2.1a rocket roared to life at 9:54 a.m. ET (6:54 p.m. local time) and smoothly climbed away from its firing stand at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
All three crew members appeared relaxed in cockpit video as they monitored their instruments, marking off milestones on the way to orbit. Eight minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff, the Soyuz separated from the booster’s third stage, solar panels unfolded and the spacecraft set off after the space station.
The launching was timed to enable a fast-track two-orbit rendezvous procedure, allowing Prokopyev and his crewmates 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 glided in for a docking at the Rassvet module’s Earth-facing port at 1:06 p.m. ET.
“We had a spectacular view of the #Soyuz launch!” station astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti tweeted. “Sergey, Dmitry and Frank will come knocking on our door in just a couple of hours … looking forward to welcoming them to their new home!”
Standing by to welcome them aboard were Expedition 67 commander Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov, who launched last March aboard the Soyuz MS-21/67S ferry ship. Also on board the ISS: SpaceX Crew 4 commander Kjell Lindgren and his three crewmates, Robert Hines, Jessica Watkins and Cristoforetti, a European Space Agency astronaut.
Rubio will be part of the U.S.-sponsored crew complement, 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 to resume launching astronauts aboard the Soyuz and to begin carrying cosmonauts aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.
The goal is to ensure one crew member from each country is always on board the station even if a Soyuz or NASA ferry ship is forced to depart early in an emergency, taking its crew back to Earth along with it.
“From the ISS side, I think it is very important in that it gives us redundancy and the ability to respond to unforeseen circumstances,” Rubio said in a pre-launch interview with CBS News. “Essentially, it gives us a backup plan.”
The arrival of the new Soyuz crew sets up a carefully choreographed sequence to replace all seven members of the station’s current crew.
If all goes well, Artemyev, Korsakov and Matveev will return to Earth on Sept. 29, landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan to wrap up a 194-day mission.
Four days later, the Crew Dragon Endurance is scheduled for launch from Florida carrying Crew 5 commander Nicole Mann, pilot Josh Cassada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina. Including a piloted test flight, the launching will mark SpaceX’s seventh crewed station mission.
After a weeklong handover to help familiarize their replacements with station operations, Lindgren, Hines, Watkins and Cristoforetti will undock and return to Earth on Oct. 10 aboard their own Crew Dragon – Freedom – to close out a 166-day mission that began with launch last April.
Kikina is the first cosmonaut to be assigned to a Crew Dragon flight and the first to ride an American spacecraft since December 2002 when the shuttle Endeavour carried one cosmonaut up to the station and brought two others back to Earth. Kikina will live and work in the Russian segment, although she’ll remain a member of the SpaceX crew.
Russian Soyuz spacecraft carried joint crews to the lab complex between the shuttle’s retirement in 2011 and the debut of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which began carrying astronauts to orbit in 2020. Those seats cost NASA up to $90 million each.
For the past two years, NASA managers worked with their Russian counterparts to hammer out an agreement to begin bartered seat swaps, launching one NASA astronaut aboard each Soyuz going to station and one cosmonaut aboard each Crew Dragon. No money would changes hands because both sides benefit.
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 earlier than planned. The seat swap agreement ensures that at least one NASA astronaut and one cosmonaut are on board station at all times to operate their respective systems.
The Russians provide the propellant and rocket power needed to keep the station in orbit and to dodge space debris while NASA provides most of the lab’s electrical power, near-continuous communications and the massive gyroscopes that keep the outpost properly oriented. Crews are not cross-trained to operate each other’s systems.
Kikina is the first cosmonaut to fly under the recently signed seat swap agreement while Rubio is the first American to ride a Soyuz since astronaut Mark Vande Hei took off on a station flight in April 2021.
The agreement took longer than expected because the Russians first wanted to evaluate the safety of the Crew Dragon system and then because of increasingly strained relations in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Rubio took the drawn-out negotiations in stride.
“It is important to realize there’s a long standing history of cooperation right back to the Apollo-Soyuz program, to the shuttle-Mir program and now 20-plus years of working together on the ISS,” he said.
“It just builds camaraderie and trust in a way that’s very important to maintain, especially in moments like this when there are tensions and other aspects. So I’m very honored to represent our nation, and I’m proud to be here. I can’t emphasize enough how much of a good thing I think this is.”