Russian space launches from the US for the first time in 20 years

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – For the first time in 20 years, a Russian cosmonaut took off from the US on Wednesday, blasting off to the International Space Station alongside NASA and Japanese astronauts despite tensions over the war in Ukraine.

Their SpaceX flight was delayed by Hurricane Ian, which hit the state last week.

“I hope with this launch we can brighten up the sky over Florida a little bit for everyone,” said Koichi Wakata of the Japan Space Agency, who is making his fifth space flight.

He is joined on a five-month mission by three newcomers to space: Marine Corps Colonel Nicole Mann, the first Indian woman to walk around Earth; Navy Captain Josh Cassada and Russia’s only female cosmonaut Anna Kikina.

“Great! Mann said as they reached orbit. “It was a smooth ride up. You have three recruits who are quite happy to be floating in space right now.”

They are due to arrive at the space station on Thursday, 29 hours after liftoff at noon from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and will not return to Earth until March. They replace an American-Italian crew that arrived in April.

Kikina is a Russian space agency exchange for NASA’s Frank Rubio, who launched to the space station two weeks ago from Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz rocket. He took off with two astronauts.

The space agencies agreed in the summer to swap the locations of their flights to ensure a continuous US and Russian presence aboard the 260-mile (420-kilometer) high outpost. The barter was allowed even as global hostilities flared over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February. The next crew change is in the spring.

Shortly before liftoff, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the main reason for the swap was safety — in case an emergency forced the crew of one capsule to return home, there would still be an American and a Russian on board.

Meanwhile, Russia remains committed to the space station at least through 2024, Russian space official Sergei Krikalev assured reporters this week. Russia wants to build its own station in orbit later this decade, “but we know it’s not going to happen very quickly, so we’ll probably keep flying” with NASA until then, he said.

Starting with Krikalev in 1994, NASA began flying astronauts on its space shuttles, first to the Russian space station Mir and then to the newly created space station. The 2003 Columbia re-entry disaster ended that. But American astronauts continued to hitchhike on Russian rockets for tens of millions of dollars in space.

Kakina is only the fifth Russian woman to fly off the planet in a rocket. She said she was surprised to be selected for the exchange, having encountered “many tests and obstacles” during her decade of training. “But I did. Maybe I’m lucky. I am strong,” she said.

Mann is a member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of California and takes his mother’s dream catcher, a small traditional shell hoop believed to offer protection. Retired NASA astronaut John Herrington of the Chickasaw Nation became the first Native American in space in 2002.

“I’m very proud to represent Native Americans and my heritage,” Mann said before the flight, adding that each of 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, the incredible achievements we can have.”

As for the war in Ukraine, Mann said all four have put their politics and personal beliefs aside, “and it’s really cool how the common mission of the space station just instantly brings us together.”

Cassada added: “We have an opportunity to be an example to society of how to work together, live together and explore together.”

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already launched eight crews since 2020: six for NASA and two private groups. Boeing, NASA’s other contracted taxi service, plans to make its first astronaut flight early next year, after delays in fixing software and other problems that arose in test flights.


The Associated Press Health and Science Division is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Division of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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