Three cosmonauts lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Friday, leaving after the International Space Station to replace three crew members – two Russians and an American – who are returning home at the end of the month to complete a record flight.
The launch comes amid high tension and strained relations following Russia’s pursuitof Ukraine, its cancellation of cooperative business ventures in response to sanctions, and a steady stream of fiercely critical comments from the head of the Russian space agency, raising concerns about the future of the station.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Friday morning he hopes the United States and Russia will continue their decades-long cooperation in space that dates back to the Cold War. But he said the agency was working on contingency plans just in case.
“We have our issues with President Putin on Earth,” Nelson said in an interview with CBS News. “Thank goodness we have seen Europe come together and a strengthening of NATO like we have never seen before.
“What’s interesting is that even in 1975 during the Soviet Union, the Cold War, we were able to have civil space cooperation with the Russians, in (the) Apollo-Soyuz project. And that has This very day, three cosmonauts (launch) from Kazakhstan to the International Space Station.
“They will join four Americans, two Russians and a German astronaut,” Nelson continued. “That is to say that this cooperation, this professional relationship between our astronauts and our cosmonauts, is consistent, and it will remain.”
Soyuz MS-21/67S commander Oleg Artemyev, a space veteran, and two rookies, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov, strapped to the top of a Soyuz 2.1a rocket and lifted off from Baikonur at 11:55 a.m. EDT ( 8:55 p.m. local time).
“Let’s work in space, together,” said a Russian, presumably Artemyev, in a translated comment a moment after liftoff.
Eight minutes and 45 seconds later, the Soyuz was in space and on its way to a two-orbit rendezvous with the space station.
Docking with the recently attached multi-port Prichal module was scheduled for 15:05. Expedition 66 Commander Anton Shkaplerov and his two Soyuz crewmates, Pyotr Dubrov and Mark Vande Hei, will be ready to welcome them on board. Also at hand:Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron and German astronaut Matthias Maurer.
Despite very strained relations on Earth, space station operations havewithout interruption, and NASA TV provided live coverage of the Soyuz launch as usual, along with commentary from mission control at Johnson Space Center.
After a 12-day “transfer”, Artemyev, Matveev and Korsakov will replace Shkaplerov, Dubrov and Vande Hei, who plan to return to Earth aboard another Soyuz on March 30. The day before, Shkaplerov will hand over command of the station to Marshburn.
Vande Hei and Dubrov werefrom Baikonur aboard a Soyuz on April 9 and completed a 355-day mission, the longest flight by an American astronaut. Vande Hei exceeded the set by astronaut Scott Kelly on March 15.
Oleg Novitskiy, who joined Dubrov and Vande Hei for the launch, returned to Earth aboard the same Soyuz last October, leaving his two crewmates aboard the station as planned and bringing back a Russian actress and her director.
Vande Hei and Dubrov plan to return to Earth aboard the Soyuz MS-19/65S spacecraft on March 30, along with Shkaplerov, which carried actress Yulia Peresild and Klim Shipenko to the lab last fall.
In a January interview with CBS News, Vande Hei said he and Shkaplerov spoke about the growing tensions at the time, but “we didn’t really feel what we felt about it.”
“I will cherish the friendships I have with Anton, Piotr and my former (Russian teammates),” Vande Hei said. “They are wonderful human beings, so I really hope things go well.
“I really think the space station, and our cooperation with the Russians on the space station in particular, is a great sign of the success we can have when we get to know each other and do things that are cooperative, rather than find points of convergence. conflict.”
But following the invasion and the American and European aftermaththe Russians canceled sales and services of widely used rocket engines to American and European companies and halted commercial Soyuz operations at the European Space Agency’s launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.
Russia’s Roscosmos space agency also canceled a planned launch of 36 internet satellites atop a Soyuz rocket that had already been paid for by OneWeb, an international consortium partly funded by the UK.
But space station operations have yet to be noticeably affected. NASA officials have intentionally kept a low profile, avoiding any comments that could exacerbate an already strained relationship.
The station’s design requires a joint operation, with Russia providing the thruster and thrusters needed to keep the outpost in orbit, while NASA provides power, satellite communications and the massive gyroscopes that keep the station going. orientation of the station.
If either party pulled out of the project, it would be extremely difficult to keep the station running. NASA wants to maintain the laboratory until 2030, but it is not yet clear whether Russia will agree.
Nelson is optimistic that Putin will not back out of the space station project, saying it is in Russia’s interest to continue.
“He’s not going to pull the plug,” Nelson told CBS News. “But if you say (what) if they abandon the space station? We’ll figure it out, we’ll figure it out. … We know we can keep it going for short-term things, and those contingency plans are already there. But we don’t expect that.
The cooperative relationship has “survived all these years since 1975,” Nelson said. “It’s not going to stop now.”