SpaceX capsule heads to space station ferrying Nasa crew, Russian cosmonaut

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket takes off at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, on Oct 5, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - A SpaceX rocket soared into orbit from Florida on Wednesday carrying the next long-term International Space Station crew, with a Russian cosmonaut, two Americans and a Japanese astronaut flying together in a demonstration of US-Russian teamwork in space despite Ukraine war tensions.

The SpaceX launch vehicle, consisting of a Falcon 9 rocket topped with a Crew Dragon capsule dubbed Endurance, lifted off into clear skies at noon EDT (midnight on Thursday, Singapore time) from Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral.

The two-stage, 23-storey-tall Falcon 9 ascended from the launch tower as its nine Merlin engines roared to life in billowing clouds of vapour and a reddish-orange fireball.

The mission is notable for the inclusion of Anna Kikina, 38, the lone female cosmonaut on active duty with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, making a rare flight aboard a US spacecraft even as antagonism between Moscow and Washington has deepened over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The last cosmonaut to ride a US rocketship to orbit was in 2002 on a Nasa space shuttle.

As the spacecraft entered Earth orbit, Kikina radioed her thanks to Nasa, Roscosmos and their International Space Station (ISS) partners for "giving us this great opportunity. We're so glad to do it together."

Kikina, a native of western Siberia, is essentially swopping places with a Nasa astronaut who took her seat aboard a Russian Soyuz flight to the ISS last month under a new ride-sharing deal signed by Nasa and Roscosmos in July.

About nine minutes after Wednesday's launch, the rocket's upper stage delivered the Crew Dragon into a suitable preliminary orbit as it streaked through space at nearly 27,000kmh. The reusable lower-stage booster, meanwhile, flew itself back to Earth and landed safely on a drone recovery vessel floating at sea.

The four-member crew and their autonomously flying capsule were expected to reach the International Space Station (ISS) in about 29 hours, on Thursday evening, to begin a 150-day science mission aboard the orbital laboratory some 400km above Earth.

The mission, designated Crew-5, marks the fifth full-fledged ISS crew Nasa has flown aboard a SpaceX vehicle since the California-based private rocket venture founded by Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk began sending US astronauts aloft in May 2020.

'Smooth ride'

This latest team is being led by Nicole Aunapu Mann, 45, a veteran combat pilot making spaceflight history as both the first indigenous woman being sent to orbit by Nasa and the first woman to take the commander's seat of a SpaceX Crew Dragon.

Moments after reaching orbit, as mission control wished the crew "Godspeed," Mann radioed back, "Awesome. Thank you so much to the Falcon team. Whew! That was a smooth ride uphill."

Live video from inside the Crew Dragon showed all four astronauts strapped into their pressurised cabin, wearing their helmeted white-and-black spacesuits.

Commander Mann, a US Marine Corps colonel and a fighter pilot who flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, holds an engineering master's degree specialising in fluid mechanics.

She also is among the first group of 18 astronauts selected for Nasa's upcoming Artemis missions, aimed at returning humans to the moon later this decade, over half a century after the Apollo lunar programme ended.

As a registered member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, Mann will become the first Native American woman to fly to space. The only other indigenous American launched to orbit was John Herrington, who flew on a 2002 shuttle mission.

The designated pilot for Wednesday's launch is Mann's Nasa astronaut classmate and fellow spaceflight rookie Josh Cassada, 49, a US Navy aviator and test pilot with a doctorate in high-energy particle physics.

Rounding out the crew from Japan's space agency Jaxa is veteran astronaut Koichi Wakata, 59, a robotics expert making his fifth voyage to space.

(From left) Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina, Nasa astronaut Josh Cassada, Nasa astronaut Nicole Mann, and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata arrive ahead of the launch. PHOTO: AFP

The Crew-5 team will be welcomed by seven existing ISS occupants - the Crew-4 team consisting of three Americans and an Italian astronaut - as well as two Russians and the Nasa astronaut who flew with them to orbit on a Soyuz flight.

The new arrivals are tasked with conducting more than 200 experiments, many of them focused on medical research ranging from 3-D "bio-printing" of human tissue to the study of bacteria cultured in microgravity.

ISS, the length of a football field and largest artificial object in space, has been continuously occupied since November 2000, operated by a US-Russian-led consortium that includes Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.

The outpost was born in part to improve relations between Washington and Moscow following collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Cold War rivalries that spurred the original US-Soviet space race.

Nasa-Roscosmos cooperation has been tested as never before since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, leading the United States to impose sweeping sanctions against Moscow. REUTERS

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