Russia has successfully launched three astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), their first successful crewed launch since a hair-raising emergency landing 53 days ago.
The Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 6.31am Eastern time (11.31am UTC). On board were NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Roscosmos (Russian space agency) cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, and Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques – the first Canadian to go to space since Chris Hadfield returned to Earth in 2013.
It will take the crew just seven hours to reach the ISS, where they will remain until July 2019. They will join three crew already on board – Serena Auñón-Chancellor of the US, Germany’s Alexander Gerst, and Russia’s Sergey Prokopyev.
This launch was originally scheduled to take place on December 20, but Russia was forced to push it forward after their previous attempt at a crew launch failed on October 11.
On that flight, NASA’s Nick Hague and Roscosmos’ Alexey Ovchinin launched safely from Kazakhstan on the Soyuz MS-10. But minutes after launching, disaster struck. As the Soyuz-FG rocket detached its four external boosters, one of them accidentally struck the core stage of the rocket, sending it spinning out of control.
At a height of 50 kilometers (31 miles) above Earth, the spacecraft had to be ejected from the rocket in a daring launch abort maneuver. The two crew returned back to Earth on a ballistic trajectory, a sharp angle of re-entry, eventually landing safely just outside the town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan.
That launch failure led to all sorts of questions about the future of the ISS. The three crew on board the ISS had to return to Earth by early January, when the lifetime of their docked Soyuz spacecraft expired. This left open the very real possibility that the ISS might have to be abandoned for a while – the first time since the first crew arrived on November 2, 2000.
Making the situation worse was that two new planned American crewed spacecraft, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner, have both been delayed by several years. With their inaugural launches not expected until mid-2019 at the earliest, there is no other way to take crew to the ISS.
So this successful launch will be a huge boon for Russia, the US, and other partners involved in the ISS. Some had questioned Russia’s rapid investigation into the Soyuz problem but, at the moment at least, they appear to have solved the issue, blaming it on a deformed sensor.
Speaking to the Houston Chronicle prior to launch, McClain – who is on her first spaceflight – said she had been confident despite their flight being rushed forward. “I do have confidence,” she said. “No one would give the green light to fly [unless everything was okay]”.
Similarly, Saint-Jacques said he was “more confident about the way the Russians have designed the Soyuz spacecraft” following the successful abort. “Of course, space is hard and things will fail. But it was very, very reassuring to see that with such a badly timed problem at a bad spot, even then, the crew were completely safe.”
Auñón-Chancellor, Gerst, and Prokopyev are set to depart the space station on December 20, leaving their three replacements on board. That departure itself could be somewhat nervy, as their spacecraft – the Soyuz MS-09 – was found to have a hole in its orbital module in August 2018. This module will be jettisoned prior to re-entry, however.
As for Hague and Ovchinin, they will still get to go to space. At the moment, they have a flight planned for March 2019 with NASA astronaut Christina Hammock. For now, though, we can all breathe a huge sigh of relief, as the ISS will not need to be left empty for the foreseeable future.