A new crew of three astronauts are launching towards the International Space Station late this evening, taking off on a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan. The trio are heading to the station about a month before SpaceX’s next manned Dragon launch, which will bring another set of four astronauts aboard the ISS in mid-November.
On board this Soyuz flight are two Russian cosmonauts – Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov – and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, on her second space trip. The trio will join three crew members who have lived on the ISS since April: Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy. However, their living room arrangement won̵
Just a few weeks later, from early to mid-November, Rubins and his team will welcome the four-member crew of SpaceX’s first operational Crew Dragon mission, called Crew-1. That flight will take three NASA astronauts – Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker – and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi to the ISS for a six-month stay. Their arrival on SpaceX’s new passenger vehicle will bring the total population of the ISS to seven, a larger-than-usual cohort for the ISS, which has typically housed crews of six since the end of the Space Shuttle program.
Rubins’ flight on the Soyuz comes in a transitional period in NASA’s human space flight program. Since the last Space Shuttle flight in 2011, the only way NASA astronauts could reach the station was with the Russian Soyuz rocket. But through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, two private companies – SpaceX and Boeing – have developed their own space capsules to carry NASA astronauts to and from the space station. In May, SpaceX demonstrated that its Crew Dragon spacecraft could safely ferry astronauts to and from the station when it delivered two NASA crew members to the ISS. Boeing’s first manned test flight is currently scheduled for next year.
SpaceX and Boeing vehicles should have been ready as early as 2017, but their development programs have suffered years of delays. Meanwhile, NASA continued to buy seats on the Russian Soyuz for US astronauts – at around $ 80 million per person – although the agency tried to limit the amount, hoping that commercial crew vehicles would soon be online. NASA hoped they would be ready last year, but when further delays seemed imminent, the space agency bought one last Soyuz seat, the one Rubins will go with early tomorrow morning.
Moving forward, NASA hopes it can establish seat swaps with Roscosmos, where Russian cosmonauts will travel on SpaceX and Boeing vehicles in exchange for NASA astronauts flying the Soyuz. However, NASA hasn’t announced any of these exchanges yet, so it’s unclear when the next American astronaut will fly to the Soyuz after this mission.
The Soyuz is expected to take off from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome on Wednesday morning at 1:45 am ET. It will be a short trip to the ISS. The Soyuz capsule will orbit Earth only twice, spending three hours in space before docking with the International Space Station. Docking is scheduled for Wednesday at 4:52 am ET on Wednesday and the crew are expected to be aboard the ISS less than two hours later.
Coverage of the NASA launch will begin at 12:45 PM ET, so if you get up late (or get up early), tune in to watch the Soyuz launch live.