Two Russian cosmonauts and an astronaut from the United States have docked with the International Space Station (ISS) after blasting off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan amid raging tensions between Moscow and Washington over the invasion of Ukraine.
Russia’s Roscosmos space agency said cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub and US NASA astronaut Loral O’Hara lifted off on Friday onboard the Soyuz MS-24 spacecraft.
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The crew docked at the ISS three hours later, at 18:53 GMT, the Russian space agency said.
— NASA (@NASA) September 15, 2023
At the orbiting station, the trio will join the crew of three Russians, two Americans and one Japanese, along with a representative of the European Space Agency.
The ISS remains a rare venue for cooperation between the US and Russia, whose ties broke down after Moscow unleashed its offensive in Ukraine last year.
Russia’s Kononenko alluded to the strained geopolitical tensions during a pre-flight press conference on Thursday, saying that “unlike on earth” cosmonauts and astronauts took care of each other in space.
“We hear each other there, and we understand each other, and we are very sensitive to our relationships,” he said. “We always take care of each other.”
The US’s O’Hara praised the station’s “legacy” and said it had been bringing the countries together.
The Soyuz spacecraft hatch opened at 5:16pm ET today expanding the space station's population to 10 less than six hours after the crew ship launched from Kazakhstan. https://t.co/nIVdAprSJF
— International Space Station (@Space_Station) September 15, 2023
“The arrival of three new crew members to the existing seven people already on board for Expedition 69 temporarily increases the station’s population to 10,” NASA said after the Soyuz docked with the ISS.
Kononenko, 59, and Chub, 39, are scheduled to spend a year on the ISS, while O’Hara, 40, is to spend six months on board. It was the first mission to space for O’Hara and Chub.
Mission commander Kononenko is on his fifth trip to the orbiting space station.
By the end of his yearlong stay, Kononenko will set a new record for the longest time in space, more than a thousand days.
Chub said that travelling to space was his “childhood dream” and he had dedicated “all his life” to reaching that goal.
Friday’s launch was the first by Russia since last month’s loss of Russia’s Luna-25 module, which crashed on the Moon’s surface after an incident during pre-landing manoeuvres, in a huge embarrassment for Moscow.
The Luna-25 mission was meant to mark Russia’s return to independent Moon exploration in the face of financial troubles and corruption scandals, and its growing isolation from the West amid its war on Ukraine.
Moscow last landed a probe on the Moon in 1976, before shifting away from lunar exploration in favour of missions to Venus and building the Mir space station.