Launching NASA astronauts on SpaceX rockets has become routine, but the Russian cosmonaut has yet to travel aboard the company’s Crew Dragon capsule.
That will change on Wednesday when the Crew-5 mission will take four astronauts to the International Space Station for half a year. Here’s what you need to know about the launch.
What is the launch date and how can I watch it?
The launch takes place at noon on Wednesday ET from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA Television will begin its coverage at 8:30 a.m. ET and will continue the live broadcast of the mission by docking at the space station at 4:57 p.m. Thursday and the welcome party following. You can watch the video in the player embedded above.
Just before 11 a.m., the four astronauts were put into the Crew Dragon capsule that will carry them into orbit. Forecasters said the weather was favorable at the launch site and along the missile’s flight path.
Why did NASA invite a Russian cosmonaut to fly on the SpaceX capsule?
Only two of the four astronauts on this flight work for NASA: Nicole Mann, the mission commander, and Josh Cassada, the pilot. The other two are Koichi Wakata from Japan and Anna Kekina from Russia.
Earlier in the ISS program, Russian cosmonauts regularly flew on space shuttles, and NASA cosmonauts flew on Russian Soyuz rockets. After the space shuttles were retired in 2011, Soyuz was the only mode of transportation available to transport astronauts to and from the space station.
When SpaceX’s Crew Dragon becomes operational in 2020, NASA no longer needs to fly its astronauts aboard a Soyuz craft, but it still wants to be able to use it. And the space agency wanted the Russian cosmonauts to ride in the Crew Dragon (as well as on a second American capsule, Boeing’s Starliner, which may become operational next year).
This is to help ensure the smooth operation of the space station, which is divided into two parts: one led by Russia and one led by NASA and its partners.
“Integrated Flight Crews ensure that there are appropriately trained crew members onboard the station for essential maintenance and spacewalking,” NASA said in a statement in July when Ms. Kekina was announced as a member of Crew 5.
The concern is that some kind of emergency—a serious health issue with a crew member, for example—could lead to an early return to Earth. All crew members aboard the spacecraft will also have to return to Earth. (Otherwise, there will not be enough seats on the remaining spacecraft.) If all the Russians had arrived aboard the Russian Soyuz, that would leave the Russian part of the space station unattended.
As part of the crew exchange, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio blasted off with two Russian cosmonauts on a Soyuz rocket to the space station last month.
“This kind of exchange will make our program more powerful,” Sergey Krikalev, executive director of human spaceflight programs at the Russian space agency Roscosmos, said during a press conference on Monday. “And we will continue this practice to make our software more reliable.”
Who is Anna Kekina?
Ms. Kekina, 38, is currently the only woman in the Russian Aerospace Force. She was training for a Soyuz flight but was transferred to the SpaceX mission when the agreement between NASA and the Russian Space Agency was finalized. This is her first flight into space.
She was the last woman in the Russian Aerospace Force to fly to the space station Elena Serova in 2014. And more recently, a Russian actress, Yulia Peresildto the space station in 2021 to shoot scenes for a movie.
Who are the other crew members?
Mrs. Mann and Mr. Casada are also first-time travelers into orbit. By contrast, Mr. Wakata is a veteran space expert, having undertaken four previous missions, including two stays on the International Space Station.
Ms. Mann, as a member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian tribes of northern California, will be the first indigenous woman from NASA to go into orbit.
Will Russia withdraw from the International Space Station?
No, not anytime soon.
Despite tensions between the United States and Russia after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, cooperation on the space station continued. Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of Roscosmos, made hostile statements about how Russia would withdraw from the project, but Russia was never officially notified that it was leaving.
The current agreement is valid until 2024. The United States would like to extend operations until 2030. Russia has said it will build its own space station, but has also indicated that it will not leave the International Space Station until that is ready.
“We know it’s not going to happen very quickly,” Roscosmos’ Mr Krikalev said on Monday. “So it is likely that we will continue to fly until we have any new infrastructure that will allow us to have a continuous human presence in low Earth orbit.”
“So, for now, we continue to fly together,” he added.
What will happen during the SpaceX flight?
It will be a roughly 17-hour flight to the space station – the duration is determined by the orbital dynamics needed for the SpaceX capsule to catch up with the space station. The four crew members will remain on the space station until March of next year.
For a while, 11 people will be on the space station until Crew-4 astronauts, who arrived at the space station in April, return home later this month.
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