Two Russian cosmonauts have left Earth to spend a year aboard the International Space Station, flying with an American crewmate who will come home after six months.
Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub of the Russian federal space corporation Roscosmos and Loral O'Hara of NASA launched together on Russia's Soyuz MS-24 spacecraft on Friday (Sept. 15). The three lifted off at at 11:44 a.m. EDT (1544 GMT or 8:44 p.m. local time) atop a Soyuz 2.1a rocket from Site 31/6 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
A trio of small plush seagulls served as the crew's zero-g indicator, beginning to float when the Soyuz entered orbit about nine minutes after leaving Earth. The seagulls were gifts from the director of the Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre, which Kononenko visited before the launch.
"I am convinced that this will truly become a tradition — a visit to [the] theater before a spaceflight," said Kononenko, whose call sign is "Antares," according to the Russian state news agency TASS. In addition to the seagulls, Kononenko also flew a flag and a fragment of a curtain to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the theater.
The launch was timed to put the Soyuz on an expedited path to the International Space Station (ISS), with the crew set to arrive and dock at the Rassvet mini-research module at about 2:56 p.m. EDT (1856 GMT), after just a two-orbit rendezvous.
Once at the space station, Kononenko, Chub and O'Hara will become part of the Expedition 69 crew led by commander Sergey Prokopyev with cosmonauts Dmitry Petelin and Andrey Fedyaev of Roscosmos, NASA astronauts Frank Rubio and Jasmin Moghbeli, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Andreas Mogensen and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Satoshi Furukawa. Expedition 70 will begin with the Sept. 27 scheduled departure of Soyuz MS-23 with Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio on board.
Kononenko and Chub will spend twice the amount of time in space as O'Hara to allow for a short visit by Marina Vasileyeva, a former flight attendent selected to represent the Republic of Belarus, flying on Soyuz MS-25 under an agreement with Roscosmos. After about a week at the station, Vasileyeva with return to Earth with O'Hara and Soyuz MS-25 commander Oleg Novitsky. NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson will launch with Novitsky and Vasileyeva and return to Earth with Kononenko and Chub on Soyuz MS-25.
If Kononenko and Chub's stay runs for 365 days or more, they will be the eighth and ninth Russians to have lived for a year in space and the third and fourth cosmonauts to do so on the International Space Station. NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, who is landing on Soyuz MS-23, is the first and only American to log a year or more in space, with a total of 371 days when he returns to Earth.
During their time on the space station, Kononenko, Chub and O'Hara will see the arrival and departure of several visiting vehicles, perform maintenance and spacewalks (extravehicular activities or EVAs) to keep the orbital complex running and help conduct hundreds of science experiments.
"We are expecting to hit the ground running," O'Hara said during a prelaunch press conference. "We'll be very busy. We have two EVAs in mid-October that we are all very much excited for, and then after that we have a SpaceX cargo Dragon [arriving], and that always keeps us very busy with a lot of science."
An engineer who worked on spacecraft design before becoming a cosmonaut in 1996, Kononenko, 59, is on his fifth mission to the International Space Station. Kononenko's prior stays include Expedition 17 in 2008, Expedition 30/31 in 2012, Expedition 44/45 in 2015 and Expedition 57/58/59 in 2019. Before launching on Friday, he had already logged more than 736 days in space. When he returns from this mission, he will have spent more time in space than any other human in history, with more than 1,000 days to his credit.
Chub, 39, is on his first flight into space. Prior to his selection as a cosmonaut in 2012, he directed an astronautics firm, participated in ESA's CAVES training program and served as a backup crew member for Soyuz MS-12 and MS-22.
O'Hara, 40, worked on rocket and submersible development before being named a member of NASA's 22nd group of astronauts, "The Turtles," in 2017. O'Hara is the second astronaut to fly on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft as part of a seat-swap agreement between Roscosmos and NASA.
"I've been dreaming about exploration ever since I was a little kid. It has just been something I'm interested in doing, and from an early age spaceflight caught my imagination. From there, I have just always been interested in challenging activities, far-off places, studying our planet and learning about new things. So for me, spaceflight wraps all of that up in a pretty incredible stage," said O'Hara.
Soyuz MS-24 is Russia's 70th Soyuz to launch for the International Space Station since 2000 and the 153rd to fly since 1967.