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NASA's SpaceX Crew-5 astronauts ready for historic mission

SpaceX's next Crew Dragon astronaut launch for NASA will see a new country represented in one of the sleek white spacesuits.

Russia's Anna Kikina will take a seat on SpaceX with two American astronauts and a Japanese astronaut on the mission. The foursome will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) no earlier than Oct. 3, 2022 at 12:45 p.m. EDT (1645 GMT) on SpaceX's Dragon Endurance spacecraft. The SpaceX craft will be lifted to the ISS atop the company's Falcon 9 rocket after launching from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. You can watch it live here at Space.com when the time comes, courtesy of SpaceX and NASA.

Crew-5 entered a routine pre-flight quarantine on Monday (Sept. 19), according to a NASA statement (opens in new tab). The crew will isolate for two weeks to ensure they are healthy and to prevent bringing illnesses up with them to the astronauts already onboard the ISS.

In pictures: Amazing launch photos of SpaceX's Crew-4 mission

The Crew-5 mission comes at a crucible moment for NASA and Roscosmos amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Kikina was reticent in early August when Space.com asked about how the Russian relationship with America is going, in the weeks after the country announced it would withdraw from the ISS after 2024 to create a Russian space station. "Not my question," Kikina said in response.

But with former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine recently calling the agency's Russian relationship "schizophrenic", the pressure falls on Crew-5 to demonstrate that the ISS will in the meantime, withstand the ruptures fracturing basically all other space partnerships out there.

Certainly, Russia has been expanding rapidly on the ISS in recent months, between bringing up its Prichal module as a docking hub, configuring a new European Robotic Arm for outdoor tasks, and sending a science center called Nauka to orbit. Kikina told Space.com she is excited to come on board with these new facilities at hand.

The astronaut crew of SpaceX's Crew-5 mission for NASA to the International Space Station. They are (from left) Mission Specialist Anna Kikina from Roscosmos; Pilot Josh Cassada and Commander Nicole Aunapu Mann, both from NASA; and Mission Specialist Koichi Wakata from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. (Image credit: SpaceX)
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That said, Russia won't be on the ISS for long. NASA has been emphasizing in recent months that the Russian ISS withdrawal will be gradual and carefully managed, but harsh realities face the remaining partners who choose to stay with the agency until 2030. The station cannot be broken into pieces, and its propulsion is managed by Russian mission control on the ground, NASA has said.

NASA is testing out spacecraft's ability to boost the ISS orbit to stop the inevitable drag that pulls the orbiting complex into the atmosphere of Earth. As for the Russian zone in space, it is possible the agency might come to an arrangement to use or purchase it. But negotiations are too early-stage for anyone to say for sure.

In the meantime, there's a packed mission coming with 200 experiments or so for the group to manage.

In pictures: Russia wants to build its own space station, as early as 2028

SpaceX Crew-5 astronaut Anna Kikina, mission specialist, gets suited up to participate in a crew equipment interface test (CEIT) at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, on Aug. 13, 2022. (Image credit: SpaceX)
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Kikina will join NASA's Nicole Mann, the first Native American woman in space, along with NASA's Josh Cassada and Japan's Koichi Wakata. 

Wakata is the only veteran on the crew, and quite a heavyweight presence at that: His 347 days in space include flights on four NASA space shuttle missions and a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, adding up to two long-duration stays and two short stays in space so far. (Some of the vessels were used only for transport to or from the ISS.) 

Related: The International Space Station will eventually die by fire

Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA)
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Wakata's first launch was in 1996, while Russia and NASA were taking their first tentative steps together in human spaceflights for decades. They were running the shuttle-Mir space station program to get ready for the ISS collaboration, which began launches in 1998 to piece a big complex together.

Wakata emphasized that throughout his career, crew relations were always focused on everyday operations, and he expects Russia's federal space agency Roscosmos will continue that courtesy until the time when it chooses to withdraw.

"We focus on what we can do today to make the make the most out of this utilization of the space station," Wakata said in an Aug. 5 interview. "I personally don't think it affects anything as far as crew involvement, crew operation or training."

When asked if in space, Wakata could possibly have missed any experience that he wants to get to this time around, the 59-year-old astronaut says he wants to do a spacewalk on this mission. Crew-5 might be the last space sojourn for Wakata; he said he would be "too old" to go to the moon on behalf of Japan, which NASA wants to do with humans in the mid-2020s or so.

Related: Wow! Astrophotographer spots spacewalking astronauts from the ground (photo)

NASA astronaut Nicole Mann in the other commercial crew vehicle NASA is testing, Boeing's Starliner. Starliner is still being readied for its first human spaceflight. (Image credit: NASA)
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NASA astronauts Mann and Cassada are rookie flyers, but eager to get rolling in space to wherever the agency plans to take them.

When asked by Space.com if she would like to go to the moon for the agency's Artemis program, Mann said yes and promptly extended an invitation for us to join, adding (perhaps) more seriously she hopes to see more types of people fly in space soon.

Diversity in spaceflyers will be represented with Mann, as the former Marine test pilot is also an enrolled member of the Wailacki, of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in northern California. (NASA astronaut John Herrington, enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, was the first Native American to reach space (opens in new tab) during shuttle mission STS-113 in 2002, according to NASA.)

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From left, Koichi Wakata, of JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina, and NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada will fly aboard NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission. (Image credit: SpaceX)
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Mann was initially training for a mission on Boeing's Starliner spacecraft before she was switched over to SpaceX due to hardware delays on Boeing's side. (Boeing hopes to fly its first human spaceflight next year, following a successful uncrewed test flight earlier this year.)

Between working with Starliner and her test pilot experience, Mann said she hopes to show the crew how to present different perspectives from flight experience.

"As you grow as an astronaut, it's so beneficial to see different ways of doing things with different ideas," added Mann, who first joined NASA as an astronaut candidate in 2013. "I think, overall, [that attitude] is just going to prepare us. It will be more useful in the future as we develop more programs."

Related: Go inside Boeing's Starliner capsule with space station astronauts (video tour)

Cassada emphasized to Space.com in another August interview that the next generation of astronauts are not only looking at new destinations for their missions, but new methods of training.

He described a simulated spacewalk he took in virtual reality along with the other members of Crew-5, just before jumping into media calls to promote the mission. Providing NASA can solve an ongoing leak issue for its spacesuits, Cassada said the hope is the crew can take on a few spacewalks to upgrade the ISS solar panels and by association, the power supply on the 24-year-old complex.

SpaceX Crew-5 astronauts are suited up and ready to participate in a crew equipment interface test (CEIT) at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, on Aug. 13, 2022.  (Image credit: SpaceX)
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"This morning, we were going through the robotics operations, because we'll have one crew member in the arm and then another crew member not in the arm, [to focus on] the install of the solar arrays," Cassada said. 

"So today, I spent a lot of time in that arm holding on to this giant solar array that I think is like 750 pounds [340 kg] of mass. That of course is not a problem, except when there's inertia," he continued, explaining he was focusing on how to safely stop and start motion in microgravity holding onto something three times the mass of a baby elephant. 

Speaking of newer tech, Cassada added that as a former Navy test pilot talking with colleagues who have flown jets with touchscreens like the F-35, he is looking forward to doing the same in SpaceX Crew Dragon. "This technology is showing up everywhere, as it should," he said.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.