Despite deteriorating East-West relations, a Russian cosmonaut joined two NASA crewmates and a Japanese space veteran for launch aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule Wednesday, kicking off a day-long flight to the International Space Station.
Wearing futuristic SpaceX pressure suits,, Russia's only active-duty female cosmonaut, Crew 5 commander , Josh Cassada and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 12 Eastern.
Pushed skyward by 1.7 million pounds of thrust, the Falcon 9 arced away to the northeast trailing a brilliant jet of flame from its nine first stage engines, smoothly accelerating as it consumed propellants and lost weight.
Nine minutes later, after dropping off its first stage for recovery on a landing barge, the Falcon 9's upper stage propelled the Crew Dragon — Endurance — out of the atmosphere and into low-Earth orbit, the first step in a 29-hour rendezvous with the space station.
"On behalf of the entire launch and recovery team, it's been an honor and a pleasure to be a part of this mission with you," radioed the SpaceX launch director. "Godspeed, Endurance. Cheers."
"Awesome!" Mann replied from orbit. "Thank you so much to the Falcon team. Whoo! That was a smooth ride up hill! We've got three rookies that are pretty happy to be floating in space right now, and one veteran astronaut who's happy to be back as well."
A few minutes later, Cassada showed off the crew's zero gravity indicator, a small Albert Einstein doll, complete with frizzy white hair. He said the mascot was chosen because of Einstein's insights about gravity, or the absence thereof, which helped pave the way to his theory of general relativity.
SpaceX thanked him for the explanation, prompting Cassada to add "my crewmates are just happy we didn't break out a dry erase board and get into more details."
Mann, a Marine Corps colonel and F/A-18 carrier pilot, is the first Native American woman to be assigned to a spaceflight. Cassada holds a doctorate in high energy physics, is a captain in the Navy and an accomplished pilot in his own right. Wakata, who holds a doctorate in aerospace engineering, is making his fifth spaceflight with a combined 347 days in orbit.
The 38-year-old Kikina, like Mann and Cassada, is a space rookie, but like her U.S. crewmates, she's had years of training while waiting for a flight assignment. A last-minute switch from an expected Soyuz flight to the Crew Dragon caught her by surprise.
"My leaders just appoint me and told me, do you want to be part of Crew 5?," Kikina told reporters, speaking in broken English. "Yes! Why not? But I was so surprised."
Her addition to Crew 5 was the result of a new agreement between NASA and the Russian space agency to resume launching U.S. astronauts aboard Soyuz spacecraft and to begin launching cosmonauts aboard American ferry ships.
The idea is to ensure at least one American and one Russian are always on board the space station even if a medical emergency or some other issue forced one country's spacecraft to leave early, taking its crew along with it.
Wednesday's launch marked the eighth piloted flight of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, the 178th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket overall and the 44th so far this year. Kikina is the first Russian to fly aboard a U.S. spacecraft since December 2002 when cosmonauts Valery Korzun and Sergei Treschev returned to Earth aboard the space shuttle Endeavour.
"We have trained and prepared for years for this," Cassada said Saturday when the crew arrived in Florida for launch. "I just can't tell you how grateful we are for this opportunity. Now it's time for us to go get to work on space station."
If all goes well, Mann and Cassada will monitor an automated rendezvous and approach to the space station, moving in for docking at the lab's forward port around 4:57 p.m. Thursday.
Standing by to welcome them aboard will be Crew 4 commander Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines, Jessica Watkins and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, the current station commander. They launched aboard a Crew Dragon last April.
Also on board: cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev, Dmitri Petelin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, who arrived at the lab complex on September 21 aboard a Soyuz spacecraft.
Kikina originally expected to fly aboard a Soyuz. But she was assigned to Crew 5 after NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, agreed on a new seat-swap plan that has its roots in the very design of the space station.
The Russians provide the propellant and propulsion needed to keep the 930,000-pound lab in orbit, countering the effects of atmospheric drag with periodic thruster firings. Russian thrusters also move the station out of the way when radar tracking indicates the possibility of a close encounter with space debris.
For its part, NASA provides the lion's share of the lab's electrical power from eight huge solar wings, around-the-clock satellite communications and the stabilizing gyroscopes that help maintain the station's orientation.
Neither side can operate the station on its own and the withdrawal of either partner would cripple, if not end the lab's useful life, at least in its current form.
NASA, the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan want to operate the station through 2030 while transitioning to planned commercial research stations in low-Earth orbit. Russia never committed to an extension beyond 2024 and in the wake of sanctions imposed after the Ukraine invasion, it was unclear whether Russia would stick with the station past the previously agreed on 2024 target date.
During a Crew 5 news briefing Monday, veteran cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, now director of human spaceflight with Roscosmos, said he expects a decision next year on extending ISS operations past 2024.
"On the Russian side, we understand that we extend our participation in the station with our government until 2024 and we start to think about designing and building (a) new station," he said, speaking in English. "But we know that it's not going to happen very quick.
"So probably we will keep flying until we will have new infrastructure that allow us to do continuous human presence on low Earth orbit at least. So up to now, we keep flying together, we are going to fly until 2024 ... and we start to discuss extending our participation in ISS program with our government, and hope to have permission to continue next year."
In the meantime, Russia and the U.S. State Department signed off on the seat-swap agreement.
"With flight of Soyuz and flight of Crew 5, we will start what we call integrated crew, or exchange flight, when one crew member from Russian segment will fly on American vehicle and one American will fly on Russian vehicle," Krikalev said.
"And this type of exchange will increase the robustness of our program, and we will continue this practice to make our program more reliable."
Unlike earlier flights, which cost NASA up to $90 million per Soyuz seat, no money will change hands for future rides because the plan benefits both sides equally. Rubio and Kikina are the first to launch under the new seat-swap agreement.
With a ready smile and an air of competence, Kikina cheerfully responds to questions from U.S. reporters. But she does not discuss Ukraine of U.S.-Russia relations. Asked if the topic ever came up during discussions with her NASA crewmates, she said "no, never."
"I am thinking a lot about my own tasks, about participation in the Crew Dragon 5 now," she said. "And then, a lot of thinking about working on the station, because in Russia, I have a lot of training and practice about Russian station program."
Rubio was more forthcoming.
"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."
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