Crew Dragon is launched safely, carrying the first Russian from American soil in 20 years

Enlarge / The Crew-5 mission launches from Kennedy Space Center on October 5, 2022.

Trevor Mahlman

Four days before Thanksgiving in 2002, space shuttle Effort took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Among the seven crew members of the International Space Station was a Russian cosmonaut, Nikolai M. Budarin, making his third spaceflight.

At that time, amid warming relations between Russia and the United States, cosmonauts had been flying on the space shuttle for nearly a decade. The exchange program would have continued, but tragedy befell the next shuttle mission, which launched in January 2003. Space Shuttle Colombia was lost upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board.

Following this disaster, no more Russian will fly on the space shuttle after its return to service. Instead, NASA focused on the minimum number of missions needed to complete construction of the International Space Station. After the shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA came to rely on the Russian Soyuz vehicle as its only ride in space.

NASA regained the ability to launch its own astronauts into space in 2020, after working with SpaceX to complete development of the Crew Dragon vehicle. After a successful demonstration flight in May 2020 with two astronauts on board, Crew Dragon was safely launched six more times, carrying two dozen more people into space.

The dragon roars

On Wednesday, Crew Dragon carried astronauts to space for the eighth time, with NASA’s fifth operational mission. This Crew-5 flight was commanded by Nicole Mann, a NASA astronaut making her first flight into space. “Whooo, that was a smooth climb!” she exclaimed as she reached orbit.

Among the four Dragon Riders was a cosmonaut, Anna Kikina, who was also making her first flight in space. She is only the sixth Russian or Soviet female cosmonaut in the program’s history since Valentina Tereshkova was launched into orbit on June 16, 1963. Kikina is also the first Russian to launch into space from the United States since Boudarin, two decades ago.

Besides Mann and Kikina, Crew-5 is completed by NASA astronaut Josh Cassada and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata. While the other three are rookies, this is Wakata’s fifth spaceflight. While aboard the International Space Station, astronauts will conduct more than 200 science experiments and technology demonstrations, including studies of how human organs feel in space.

The Kikina launch comes as relations between NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, stabilize. There were many difficult times in this relationship after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February. Tensions have been heightened by pompous and nationalist Roscosmos leader Dmitry Rogozin, who has made critical statements about NASA and openly supported the war while seeking to curry favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rogozin has also repeatedly threatened to remove Russia from the International Space Station.

However, Rogozin was fired at the head of Roscosmos in July and replaced by former Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov. The new head of the Russian space agency has been much more weighted than his predecessor and has indicated his willingness to continue working with NASA on the International Space Station until at least 2024 and likely beyond. This arrangement is preferred by NASA, which specifies that the station is intended to be operated jointly by its main partners, the United States and Russia.

A new era full of hope

And so Kikina’s spaceflight on Wednesday is both the end of an era and the start of a new one. A Russian launch from American soil ends a 20-year drought and is an encouraging sign that while the United States and Russia are locked in a deep, serious conflict on Earth, cooperation in space remains possible.

This is the view expressed on Wednesday by Sergei Krikalev, who is the head of human spaceflight for Roscosmos, during a press conference after the flight. Krikalev is a veteran cosmonaut who became the first Russian to fly on NASA’s Space Shuttle in 1994.

The United States and Russia, he said, have cooperated in space for more than 40 years, dating back to the docking of an Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft in the 1970s. he said, was to ensure that the two countries would continue “our cooperation for as long as I can imagine”.

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