The United States will bring a Russian to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX ship on Wednesday, in a journey that has symbolic significance amid the Ukraine war.
Anna Kikina, the only female cosmonaut on duty, is part of the Crew 5 mission, which also includes one Japanese and two American astronauts.
The launch is scheduled for noon from Kennedy Space Center, with the weather forecast so far looking promising.
Two weeks ago, an American astronaut took off to the orbital platform on a Russian Soyuz rocket.
The long-planned astronaut exchange program has continued despite rising tensions between the two countries since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
Ensuring the operation of the ISS has become one of the few remaining areas of cooperation between the United States and Russia.
“When you fly each other’s crew members, you know you have a great responsibility that you promise the other country,” NASA Deputy Administrator Kathy Lueders told reporters at a recent news conference.
“At the working level, we really appreciated the consistency in the relationship, even in geopolitically very, very difficult times.”
– Fifth Female Cosmonaut –
Kikina, 38 and an engineer by training, will be the fifth Russian professional cosmonaut to go into space.
“I hope that in the near future we will have more women in the cosmonaut corps,” the Novosibirsk native told AFP in August.
The Soviet Union sent the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963, almost 20 years before the first American woman, Sally Ride. Since then, America has flown dozens more women.
It will also be the first spaceflight for American astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, but the fifth for Japanese Koichi Wakata.
After a journey of about 30 hours, their ship will dock at the station on Thursday, ready to begin a five-month scientific mission and relieve the four members of Crew-4, who will stay for a few days for the handover.
The arrival of Crew-5 will bring the total number of astronauts on the ISS to 11, including two more Russians and one American who recently arrived on the Soyuz.
– ISS future unclear –
Kikina will be the first Russian to fly in Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which, along with Boeing, has a “taxi service” deal with NASA.
Musk himself got involved in the conflict on Thursday by proposing a peace deal that would include repeating annexation referenda in Moscow-held regions of Ukraine under UN supervision and recognizing Russian sovereignty over the Crimean peninsula.
The post enraged Ukrainians, including the country’s envoy to Germany, who responded with an expletive.
Tensions between Moscow and Washington have increased significantly in the space arena after the announcement of US sanctions against the Russian aerospace industry in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
Russia announced this summer that it would leave the ISS “after 2024” in favor of its own station, but without setting an exact date.
Roscosmos Director of Manned Flights Sergei Krikaliov said Monday he hopes the Russian government will agree to extending participation in the ISS after 2024.
For its part, the United States intends to continue operations until at least 2030 and then transition to commercially operated stations.
Currently, the ISS cannot function without joint cooperation, since the US side is responsible for energy and life support, and the Russian side is responsible for propulsion and orbit maintenance.
Between 2011 — when the space shuttle program ended — and SpaceX’s first flight to the ISS in 2020, the United States depended on Russia to fly its crew to the station, paying tens of millions of dollars per seat.
The loss of this monopoly means a significant reduction in revenue for the Russian space program. The current crew exchange program, on the other hand, is a barter transaction without exchange of money.