Three-man Russian crew ready for launch to International Space Station

Russian cosmonauts Sergey Korsakov, Oleg Artemyev, and Denis Matveev during a training session inside their Soyuz MS-21 spacecraft. Credit: Roscosmos

Three cosmonauts set to kick off a six-and-a-half month expedition in orbit will launch Friday on Russia’s first mission to the International Space Station since the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

A Soyuz rocket set to launch from Site 31 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 11:55 a.m. EDT (1555 GMT) with the Soyuz MS-21 spacecraft carrying veteran Russian cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev and rookie space fliers Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov.

Liftoff is set for 8:55 p.m. local time at Baikonur.

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency, said the crew was formally approved by a Russian state commission Thursday.

“The boys are in a fighting mood,” Rogozin tweeted.

Rogozin, a politician and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has made a series of incendiary statements since Russia’s military invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. He has threatened the future of the space station partnership with NASA, Europe, Japan, and Canada, and recalled Russian ground teams from a European-owned Soyuz launch base in French Guiana.

He also issued an ultimatum to OneWeb, which is building a satellite internet network, demanding the UK government sell its shares in the company. The UK government declined, and OneWeb announced it is suspending its future launches from Baikonur on Soyuz rockets.

So far, the International Space Station has persevered through the crisis. All of the station partners, including the United States and Russia, have something to lose if the program is terminated. And space station operations depend on each of the main partners, with the U.S. segment generating most of the electrical power and providing attitude control. The Russian section provides propulsion and orbital re-boost capability.

Artemyev will launch in the center seat of the Soyuz spacecraft. Matveev, as lead flight engineer, will occupy the left-hand seat, and Korsakov will sit on the right side of the capsule for the ride to the space station.

A Russian Soyuz-2.1a rocket rolled to the launch pad with the Soyuz MS-21 spacecraft on Tuesday. Credit: Roscosmos

It’s the first flight of an all-Russian team of professional cosmonauts since 2000, when two cosmonauts flew to Russia’s Mir space station. An all-Russian crew launched to the International Space Station in October, but that mission included a Russian actress and director, who shot scenes on the station for a film.

“For the first time in many years, a completely Russian crew,” Rogozin tweeted.

The three-stage Soyuz rocket, burning kerosene and liquid oxygen, will head northeast from Baikonur after liftoff. The launch is timed for the moment the space station is nearly directly overhead Baikonur, allowing the Soyuz MS-21 spacecraft to begin an expedited two-orbit, three-hour and 10-minute rendezvous with the complex.

The Soyuz-2.1a rocket will release the Soyuz crew capsule in orbit nearly nine minutes after liftoff. The Soyuz will unfurl its solar arrays and navigation antennas, then commence a series of orbit adjustment burns to line up with the space station’s Prichal module, the newest element of the Russian segment.

The Soyuz mission will be the first to link up with the new Prichal docking node, which arrived at the station in November.

Docking at the Prichal module is scheduled for 3:05 p.m. EDT (1905 GMT). Following a series of pressure equalization steps and leak checks, the cosmonauts will open hatches and float into the space station a few hours later.

Artemyev, 51, was born in Latvia and grew up in Kazakhstan. He graduated from Baumann Moscow State Technical University with a degree in physics, then worked as an engineer at Energia, the primary contractor for the Russia’s human spaceflight program. He was selected for Russia’s cosmonaut corps in 2003, and has logged nearly 366 days in orbit on two previous expeditions to the International Space Station.

He will take command of the space station crew later this year. In a pre-launch press conference, Artemyev said he and Matveev are gearing up for up to seven spacewalks outside the space station during their mission. The Soyuz MS-21 crew is scheduled to return to Earth on Sept. 29.

Matveev is a 38-year-old rookie space flier who spent his early career as an engineer at the cosmonaut training center in Star City, Russia. Korsakov, a native of the former Soviet republic in Kyrgyzstan, is 37 years old and holds a degree in rocket engines.

The three cosmonauts will join seven other crew members on the station, temporarily raise the facility’s crew size to 10. They will replace Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov, Pyotr Dubrov, and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who will ride back to Earth in their Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft March 30.

Another crew rotation is on tap for April, when a new SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida with three NASA astronauts and an Italian crew member. They will take the place of a four-person Dragon crew who have been on the station since November.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.