A three-member crew exploded next to the International Space Station on Friday in a capsule as part of the 60th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who became the first person in space.
Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei took off from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at the expected time of 07:42 GMT, a video broadcast by NASA TV was shown, and the landing is expected at 11:07 GMT.
Reminders of Gagarin’s achievements were everywhere at the Baikonur cosmodrome operated by Russia in Kazakhstan, while Novitsky, Dubrov and Vande Hei were preparing for their six-month mission in the orbital laboratory.
The Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft in which the trio took off was named after the legendary cosmonaut, and Gagarin’s portrait was added to its exterior.
Gagarin also appeared several times at a traditional pre-flight press conference on Thursday, where the crew was asked how they plan to mark Monday’s anniversary in space.
“We will celebrate it together,” said 43-year-old Dubrov, who is flying into space for the first time. “And we’ll do our best!”
The anniversary of Gagarin’s historic summer on April 12, 1961 is celebrated in Russia every year as Cosmonautics Day.
The explosion on Friday was from a different launch pad than the one used for Gagarin’s only mission, which saw him spend 108 minutes in orbit.
Last used in 2019, the Gagarin launch pad is undergoing upgrades in preparation for the new generation of Soyuz rockets and is expected to return to action in 2023.
Gagarin’s mission was a propaganda coup for the Soviet Union and a huge victory in the space race with the West, which became one of the most exciting conspiracies of the Cold War.
Hard times for the space program
But the anniversary comes at a difficult time for Russia’s space industry, which has recently suffered a series of setbacks, from an industry corruption scandal to a broken takeoff with a human crew in 2018.
Perhaps most importantly, Roscosmos and Baikonur lost their monopoly on the launch of the ISS with crew last year, as Elon Musk’s reusable spacecraft from Space X delivered NASA astronauts to the station from U.S. soil.
The emergence of commercial competitors has left Roscosmos a financial headache – NASA has paid the company tens of millions of dollars per seat for astronauts sent to the ISS.
Russian space officials are still discussing new ventures, including returning samples from Venus and creating a rocket capable of 100 cruises into space.
However, the space budget has been falling from year to year, as President Vladimir Putin favors increased military spending.
The universe has shown a rare area of cooperation between Russia and the West amid growing geopolitical tensions.
But the ISS project, started in 2000, is expected to be withdrawn before the end of this decade.
Despite talk of NASA and Roscosmos going in different directions as the space station shuts down, crews stressed the importance of good relations for continued progress.
“When we first started, we competed with each other and that was one of the reasons we were so successful at the start of the human space flight,” said Vande Hei, who amused himself with the haircut he gave himself during quarantine before his second. mission aboard the ISS.
“As time went on, we realized that we could achieve a little more work together … I hope that will continue in the future.”