KENNEDY SPACE CENTER (UNITED STATES) – A SpaceX spaceship blasted off from Florida Wednesday, headed for the International Space Station and carrying a Russian crewmate, in a voyage that carries symbolic significance amid the Ukraine war.
Anna Kikina, the only female cosmonaut in service, is part of the Crew-5 mission, which also includes one Japanese and two American astronauts.
“Let’s do this,” said Crew-5 mission commander Nicole Mann, the first Native American in space, shortly before liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at noon.
Two weeks ago, an American astronaut took off on a Russian Soyuz rocket for the orbital platform.
The long-planned astronaut exchange program has been maintained despite soaring tensions between the United States and Russia since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
Ensuring the operation of the ISS has become one of the few remaining areas of cooperation between the United States and Russia.
“When you each are flying other’s crew members, you know that you have a huge responsibility that you’re promising to the other country,” NASA associate administrator Kathy Lueders told reporters in a recent press conference.
“At a working level, we really appreciated the constancy in the relationship, even during some really, really tough times geopolitically.”
– Fifth female cosmonaut, first Native American –
Kikina, 38 and an engineer by training, will become the fifth Russian female professional cosmonaut to go into space.
“I hope in the near future we have more women in the cosmonaut corps,” the Novosibirsk native told AFP in August.
The Soviet Union put the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963, nearly 20 years before the first American woman Sally Ride. Since then, the United States has flown dozens more women.
It is also the first spaceflight for American astronauts Mann and Josh Cassada, but the fifth for Japan’s Koichi Wakata.
Mann is the first indigenous woman to go to space with NASA. According to her NASA biography she is registered with the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes.
She holds a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford, served as a test pilot in the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet, and flew 47 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
– ISS future unclear –
Kikina will be the first Russian to fly with Elon Musk’s SpaceX which, along with Boeing, has a “taxi service” contract with NASA.
Musk himself waded into the conflict by proposing on Twitter a peace deal that involved re-running, under UN supervision, annexation referendums in Moscow-occupied regions of Ukraine and acknowledging Russian sovereignty over the Crimean peninsula.
The post enraged Ukrainians, including the country’s envoy to Germany, who responded with an expletive.
Tensions between Moscow and Washington have increased considerably in the space field after the announcement of American sanctions against the Russian aerospace industry, in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
Russia thus announced this summer that it wanted to leave the ISS “after 2024” in favor of creating its own station, albeit without setting a precise date.
The director of manned flights at Roscosmos, Sergei Krikaliov, declared Monday he hoped the Russian government agrees to extend participation in the ISS after 2024.
The United States, for its part, wants to continue operating until at least 2030, then transition to commercially run stations.
As things stand, the ISS cannot function without joint cooperation, as the US side is responsible for power and life support and the Russian side for propulsion and maintaining orbit.