By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace Staff Writer
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — For the first time in 20 years, a Russian cosmonaut left the United States Wednesday and headed to the International Space Station alongside Japanese and NASA astronauts despite war tensions in Ukraine. .
His SpaceX flight was delayed by Hurricane Ian, which swept through the state last week.
“I hope that with this launch we will light up the skies over Florida a little bit for everyone,” said Koichi Wakata of the Japanese Space Agency, who is making his fifth spaceflight.
Joining him on a five-month mission are three new to space: Navy Colonel Nicole Mann, the first Native American woman bound for orbit; Navy Captain Josh Cassada and Russia’s only female cosmonaut, Anna Kikina.
They are expected to arrive at the space station on Thursday, 29 hours after departing from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and won’t return to Earth until March. They are replacing an American-Italian crew that arrived in April.
Kikina is the Russian Space Agency’s exchange for NASA’s Frank Rubio, who launched to the space station two weeks ago from Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz rocket. He flew with two cosmonauts.
The space agencies agreed over the summer to swap seats on their flights to ensure a continued US and Russian presence aboard the 420-kilometer (260-mile) high outpost. The barter was authorized even as global hostilities escalated over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February. The next crew exchange is in the spring.
Shortly before liftoff, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the key reason for swapping seats is safety: In the event that an emergency forces a capsule crew to return home, there will still be an American and a Russian on board.
Meanwhile, Russia remains committed to the space station until at least 2024, Russian space official Sergei Krikalev told reporters this week. Russia wants to build its own orbiting station by the end of this decade, “but we know it’s not going to happen very quickly and we’ll probably keep flying” with NASA until then, he said.
Beginning with Krikalev in 1994, NASA began carrying cosmonauts on its space shuttles, first to the Russian space station Mir and then to the fledgling space station. The Columbia re-entry disaster in 2003 put an end to this. But American astronauts continued to hitchhike on Russian rockets for tens of millions of dollars a seat.
Kakina is only the fifth Russian woman to be flung off the planet. She said she was surprised to be selected for the seat swap after encountering “many tests and obstacles” during her decade of training. “But I did. I’m lucky maybe. I’m strong,” she said.
Mann is a member of the Wailacki Indian Tribes of California’s Round Valley, and takes up her mother’s dream catcher, a small traditional woven hoop that is believed to offer protection. Retired NASA astronaut John Herrington of the Chickasaw Nation became the first Native American in space in 2002.
“I am very proud to represent Native Americans and my heritage,” Mann said before the flight, adding that everyone on her crew has a unique background. “It’s important to celebrate our diversity and also realize how important it is when we collaborate and come together, what incredible achievements we can have.”
As for the war in Ukraine, Mann said the four have put aside politics and personal beliefs, “and it’s really cool how the common mission of the space station instantly brings us together.”
Cassada added: “We have the opportunity to be an example to society on how to work together, live together and explore together.”
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has now launched eight crews since 2020: six for NASA and two private groups. Boeing, NASA’s other contract taxi service, plans to make its first flight with astronauts early next year, after delays in fixing software and other problems that surfaced on test flights.
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