Russia launches crew of three, including U.S. astronaut, to space station

Photographers capture the liftoff of the Soyuz MS-25 mission bound for the International Space Station. Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Two days after a rare last-second launch abort, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft blasted off Saturday on a flight to the International Space Station, carrying two short-duration crew members and a NASA astronaut bound for a six-month tour of duty.

Soyuz MS-25/71S commander Oleg Novitskiy, Belarus guest cosmonaut Marina Vasilevskaya and NASA veteran Tracy Dyson thundered away from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 8:36 a.m. EDT (5:36 p.m. local time) and slipped into orbit eight minutes and 45 seconds later.

Launch originally was planned for last Thursday, but the countdown was aborted inside 20 seconds to launch when computers detected low voltage readings in the Soyuz 2.1a rocket’s first stage electrical system.

It was the first ever such abort for a Soyuz rocket, and it took Russian engineers a day to review telemetry, pinpoint the problem and replace suspect batteries. Subsequent testing showed all systems were go for a second launch attempt Saturday.

As the Soyuz countdown ticked toward a late afternoon launch in Kazakhstan, a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship launched Thursday from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station caught up with the space station and moved in for docking at 7:19 a.m., bringing 6,200 pounds of science gear, spare parts and crew supplies to the lab complex, including fresh food and coffee kits.

A SpaceX Cargo Dragon pictured moments before docking with the space station’s zenith port. Image: NASA TV.

The Soyuz is expected to catch up with the space station Monday, moving in for docking at a port on the station’s Earth-facing Prichal module at 11:09 a.m.

Standing by to welcome them aboard will be station commander Oleg Kononenko, cosmonauts Nikolai Chub and Alexander Grebenkin and NASA astronauts Loral O’Hara, Matthew Dominick, Michael Barratt and Jeanette Epps.

Vasilevskaya, an accomplished ballroom dancer and flight attendant with Belavia Airlines, is the first citizen of Belarus, a staunch ally of Russia, to fly in space since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

She was selected as a “spaceflight participant” in a nationwide competition and will conduct research for scientists in Belarus as part of a program known as the Belarusan Woman in Space.

Dyson is making her third spaceflight and her second aboard a Soyuz. Despite the political tension between the United States and Russia, the crew appears to get along well together.

“It’s actually been a real delight working with Marina,” Dyson said. “She’s got a fantastic attitude, and that goes a long way when you’re working together with emergency masks on your face in awful conditions trying to get through (emergency training) procedures. She’s been a real delight to work with.”

Kononenko, Chub and O’Hara were launched to the station last Sept. 15 aboard the Soyuz MS-24/70S spacecraft. Dominick, Barratt, Epps and Grebenkin were launched on March 3 aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon ferry ship. Known as Crew 8, they replaced four other Crew Dragon fliers — Crew 7 — who returned to Earth March 12 after a short handover.

Novitskiy and Vasilevskaya plan to spend 12 days aboard the space station. O’Hara will replace Dyson for the trip home and the trio will return to Earth April 6 aboard the Soyuz MS-24/70S spacecraft that carried O’Hara, Kononenko and Chub into orbit last September.

Kononenko and Chub are midway through a planned yearlong stay aboard the station. If all goes well, they will return to Earth next September, along with Dyson, using the Soyuz MS-25/71S ferry ship delivered by Novitskiy’s crew.

With O’Hara’s return, five of the station’s seven full-time crew members will have been replaced, completing the latest crew rotation sequence.

Dyson first flew aboard the space shuttle Endeavour for a 13-day space station visit in 2007. Three years later, she blasted off aboard a Soyuz spacecraft as a long-duration station crew member, logging 176 days aboard the outpost between April and the end of September 2010.

Belarus spaceflight participant Marina Vasilevskaya, top, Expedition 71 NASA astronaut Tracy Dyson, middle, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy, wave farewell prior to boarding the Soyuz MS-25 spacecraft. Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

During that flight, a now-famous picture of Dyson captured her gazing down at the blue-and-white Earth suspended in the darkness of space as seen from the lab’s multi-window Cupola compartment.

In an interview with CBS News, she said she now knows what to expect and “this time, I’m going to just see how I can help the others.”

“Part of the beauty of living on board is being part of a crew and a team and helping each other out,” she said. “So if I’ve got any spare time and the rest of my compadres are working, then I’m certainly going to try to lend a hand where I could. But if we’re all experiencing some free time, I’m really looking forward to that view out the window.

“I have such a great memory (of the experience) and that cupola shot certainly captures that, of viewing the Earth. And that just never gets old.”

The training it takes to get there is another matter.

“That’s the toughest part about what we do, the training, which requires us to be away from home for long periods of time,” she said. “When I did this on my first two flights, it was not as bad because it was really just me at home. I had a dog that others were willing to take care of. My husband was deployed on a ship.”

“But now it’s a little different, and I have a lot of support from my family, who’s reminded me over and over that I’m that I’m doing this for them as much as I’m doing it for myself.”

She will face a very busy six months in space.

Boeing’s Starliner ferry ship, a NASA-sponsored alternative to SpaceX’s already proven Crew Dragon, is expected to take off on its first piloted test flight in early May, carrying NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Sunita Williams to the space station on a shakedown flight.

If the flight goes well, the Starliner will be certified for use in future ISS crew rotation missions, alternating with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and providing NASA with redundancy when it comes to launching astronauts to and from the space station.

“Today, all of our Crew Dragons are launching on (SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets),” said space station Program Manager Dana Weigel. “If there was a problem with F9, for example, and we had to stand down for a while … if we had another vehicle we could continue flying.”

And that would help make sure one or more American astronauts is always on board the space station.

“So that’s the reason, when we talk about having multiple providers, why it’s so important for us to have that continual capability,” Weigel said.

In June, NASA plans three spacewalks, or EVAs, to carry out a variety of tasks, including work to prepare for the addition of a final set of roll-out solar array blankets.

Astronauts have not yet been assigned to the excursions, but Dyson is a spacewalk veteran and her experience may prompt NASA to send her back outside.

“We’ve got three EVAs planned for our increment, and I am one of the spacewalkers trained to do those EVAs,” she said. “We’ll see how they all work out and who goes out and who stays inside to get them all suited up.”

1 Comment

  1. So glad Tracy Dyson is going back after a long hiatus not being in the rotation. I have a lot of respect and admiration for her; she’s a consummate veteran, advocate for ISS, and “long-hauler.”

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