"Whooo, that was a smooth ride uphill!"

crew dragon launches safely, carrying first russian from us soil in 20 years

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

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

By then, as part of warming relations between Russia and the United States, cosmonauts had been flying on board the space shuttle for nearly a decade. The exchange program would have continued, but tragedy struck on the shuttle’s next mission, which launched in January 2003. Space Shuttle Columbia was lost upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board.

Following this disaster, no more Russians would fly on the space shuttle after it returned to service. Instead, NASA focused on flying the minimum number of missions needed to complete the construction of the International Space Station. After the shuttle’s retirement in 2011, NASA would come to rely on Russia’s Soyuz vehicle as its only ride to space.

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

Dragon roars

On Wednesday, Crew Dragon carried astronauts into space for an eighth time, with the fifth operational mission for NASA. This Crew-5 flight was commanded by Nicole Mann, a NASA astronaut making her first flight into space. “Whooo, that was a smooth ride uphill!” she exclaimed upon reaching orbit.

Among the four Dragon riders was a cosmonaut, Anna Kikina, also making her debut flight into space. She is just the sixth Russian or Soviet female cosmonaut in the history of the program since Valentina Tereshkova flew into orbit on June 16, 1963. Kikina is also the first Russian to launch into space from the United States since Budarin, two decades ago.

All smiles from Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina, flying to the @Space_Station today aboard the Crew Dragon Endurance🚀🇷🇺🇺🇸 #shotoniphone #BLA5TOFF #Crew5 pic.twitter.com/406Z2skkvP

— 📸Trevor Mahlmann (@TrevorMahlmann) October 5, 2022

In addition to Mann and Kikina, Crew-5 is rounded out by NASA astronaut Josh Cassada and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata. While the other three are rookies, this is Wakata’s fifth spaceflight. During their stay aboard the International Space Station, the astronauts will conduct more than 200 science experiments and technology demonstrations, including studies on printing human organs in space.

Kikina’s launch comes as relations between NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, are stabilizing. There have been many difficult moments in this relationship after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February. Tensions were exacerbated by the bombastic and nationalistic leader of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, who made critical statements about NASA and openly supported the war while seeking to curry favor with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rogozin also repeatedly made threats about pulling Russia out of the International Space Station.

However, Rogozin was dismissed as the leader of Roscosmos in July and replaced by former Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov. The new leader of the Russian space agency has been far more level-headed than his predecessor and has indicated a willingness to continue to work with NASA on the International Space Station at least through 2024 and probably beyond. This arrangement is the preference of NASA, which says the station is intended to be operated jointly by its major partners, the United States and Russia.

A hopeful new era

And so Kikina’s spaceflight on Wednesday is both the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. A Russian launching from US soil brings to end a 20-year-drought and represents a hopeful sign that while the United States and Russia are locked in a deep a serious conflict on Earth, cooperation in space remains possible.

That was the view expressed Wednesday by Sergei Krikalev, who is the chief of human spaceflight for Roscosmos, during a post-flight news conference. 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 a docking of an Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft in the 1970s. It was his goal, he said, to ensure, that the two countries would continue “our cooperation as long as I can imagine.”

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