BAIKONUR, KAZAKHSTAN - Two Russians and an American rocketed toward the International Space Station on Friday amid raging tensions between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine.
Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub and NASA astronaut Loral O’Hara lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard the Soyuz MS-24 spacecraft, which spewed a torrent of fire. The crew was expected to dock at the ISS three hours later.
The liftoff took place after Russia’s first lunar mission in nearly 50 years failed last month.
The orbital station is a rare venue for cooperation between the US and Russia, whose ties broke down after Moscow unleashed its offensive in Ukraine last year.
Kononenko alluded to the tensions during a pre-flight press conference on Thursday, saying that “unlike on earth” cosmonauts and astronauts took care of each other in space.
“We hear each other there, and we understand each other, and we are very sensitive to our relationships,” he said. “We always take care of each other.” O’Hara praised the station’s “legacy” and said it had been bringing the countries together.
“I’m excited to get on board and see the crewmates who are waiting for us,” she added.
Kononenko, 59, and Chub, 39, are scheduled to spend a year on the ISS, while O’Hara, 40, is to spend six months aboard. It was the first mission to space for both O’Hara and Chub. Chub said that travelling to space was his “childhood dream” and he had dedicated “all his life” to reaching that goal.
Russia President Vladimir Putin is looking to strengthen space cooperation with China after ties with the West broke down following the start of Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine last year.
On Wednesday, Putin hosted the reclusive leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, at Russia’s new spaceport in the Far East, and the two discussed the possibility of sending a North Korean into space.
Last month Russia’s Luna-25 module crashed on the Moon’s surface after an incident during pre-landing manoeuvres, in a huge embarrassment for Moscow.
The Luna-25 mission was meant to mark Russia’s return to independent Moon exploration in the face of financial troubles and corruption scandals, and its growing isolation from the West. Moscow last landed a probe on the Moon in 1976, before shifting away from lunar exploration in favour of missions to Venus and building the Mir space station.