A Russian Soyuz spacecraft will launch an American astronaut and two cosmonauts to the International Space Station early Friday (April 9) — and you can watch it live online.
The Soyuz capsule carrying NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov is scheduled to launch atop a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:42 a.m. EDT (0742 GMT or 12:42 p.m. local time) on Friday for a quick, three-hour ride to the International Space Station.
If everything goes according to plan, the trio's spacecraft will dock with the space station around 7:07 a.m. EDT (1107 GMT). Coverage of that event will begin at 6:15 a.m. EDT (1015 GMT). NASA will also webcast the hatch opening and crew or flight controller remarks, which are expected to occur around 8:30 a.m. EDT (1230 GMT).
This mission will be the second spaceflight for Vande Hei, the third for Soyuz commander Novitskiy and the first for Dubrov.
NASA announced Vande Hei's involvement in this mission just last month. Usually crewmembers for long-duration space station missions get years of notice, but NASA fast-tracked Vande Hei after the agency's plans to shift to commercial crew opportunities were complicated by ongoing technical issues with Boeing's Starliner astronaut taxi, which may delay that vehicle's first crewed flight to 2022.
(Like Boeing, SpaceX holds a contract with NASA's Commercial Crew Program. SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule is up and running and has already carried two crews to the orbiting lab.)
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Vande Hei did have some notice of the flight before the public announcement, he told Space.com in an exclusive interview. "Me preparing for this flight was something we had done as a contingency, just in case we could get the seat," he said.
NASA usually buys seats aboard the Soyuz. But in this case, NASA and Roscosmos, Russia's federal space agency, instead agreed to exchange seats — Vande Hei's on the Soyuz for a to-be-determined Roscosmos astronaut on a future commercial crew flight. Flight assignments are still being determined as NASA works out the kinks with commercial crew scheduling, and Vande Hei may thus spend a year rather than the usual six months in space. But that hasn't been fully decided yet.
"Things change and … we have to coordinate with the Russians, Roscosmos in particular, to figure out when to come back," Vande Hei told Space.com.
His previous spaceflight lasted six months. So Vande Hei said he'll look forward to a new "life experience" if he is tasked to stay aloft for a year.
The three-person Soyuz MS-18 crew will join seven Expedition 64 spaceflyers currently on the orbiting lab, making for one of the biggest crews in recent memory. The seven people already there arrived on two spaceships last year. A Soyuz brought NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov to the station in October. Then, a SpaceX Crew Dragon sent NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, as well as Japan's Soichi Noguchi, to the orbiting complex in November.
Friday's launch will occur three days before the 60th anniversary of the first human spaceflight, from the same place that hosted that historic liftoff. On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union's Yuri Gagarin launched to Earth orbit from Baikonur. Russia's space agency Roscosmos has named the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft Gagarin after the famed cosmonaut.
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