First time in 20 years: Russian cosmonaut fired from US to ISS amid tensions over war with Ukraine

Cape Canaveral (US): For the first time in 20 years, a Russian cosmonaut rocketed from the US to the International Space Station on Wednesday, along with NASA and Japanese astronauts, despite tensions over the war in Ukraine. Their SpaceX flight was delayed by Hurricane Ian, which passed through the state last week. “I hope that with this launch we will brighten up the skies over Florida for everyone,” said Koichi Wakata of the Japanese space agency, which is making its fifth spaceflight.

With him on a five-month mission are three newcomers to space: Marine Col. Nicole Mann, the first Native American woman to orbit the Earth; Naval Captain Josh Cassada and Russia’s only female cosmonaut, Anna Kikina. ‘Awesome!’ said Mann as they reached Earth orbit. “That was a smooth ride uphill. You have three rookies who are quite happy to be floating in space right now.”

They will arrive at the space station 29 hours after a 12 noon departure from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, and will not be back on Earth until March. They replace an American-Italian crew who arrived in April. Kikina is the Russian space agency’s exchange for NASA’s Frank Rubio, who launched to the space station two weeks ago from Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz rocket. He flew up with two cosmonauts.

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The space agencies agreed over the summer to swap seats on their flights to ensure the continued presence of the US and Russia aboard the 260-mile (420-kilometer) outpost.

The barter was approved even as global hostilities over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine intensified in late February. The next crew change will be in the spring.
Shortly before launch, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said the main reason for the seat change is safety, in the event that an emergency forces a capsule’s crew home, there would still be an American and a Russian on board.

In the meantime, Russia will remain committed to the space station until at least 2024, Russian space official Sergei Krikalev assured reporters this week. Russia plans to build its own orbiting station later this decade, “but we know it won’t happen very soon and so we’ll probably keep flying with NASA until then,” he said.

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Beginning with Krikalev in 1994, NASA began flying cosmonauts on its space shuttles, first to the Russian Mir space station and then to the fledgling space station.

The disaster with the return of Columbia in 2003 put an end to that. But American astronauts continued to piggyback on Russian rockets for tens of millions of dollars a seat. Kakina is only the fifth Russian woman to shoot off the planet. She said she was surprised to be selected for the seat change after facing many tests and obstacles during her decade of training. “But I did it. I might be lucky. I’m strong,” she said.

A member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in California, Mann takes on her mother’s dreamcatcher, a small traditional webbed hoop believed to provide protection. Retired NASA astronaut John Herrington of the Chickasaw Nation became the first Native American in space in 2002.

“I’m very proud to represent Native Americans and my heritage,” Mann said before the flight, adding that everyone on her crew has a unique background. “It’s important to celebrate our diversity and also realize how important it is when we work together and unite, the incredible achievements we can have.”

As for the war in Ukraine, Mann said all four have brushed aside politics and personal beliefs, “and it’s really cool how the common mission of the space station immediately unites us.” Cassada added: “We have the opportunity to be an example to society about how we can work together and live together and discover together.” Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched eight crews since 2020: six for NASA and two private groups. Boeing, NASA’s other contracted taxi service, plans to make its first astronaut flight early next year, following delays to fix software and other issues encountered during test flights.

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