Three astronauts flew to the ISS on Thursday, leaving the virus-plagued planet with little pomp and no family at the launch site to offer them farewell.
Russians Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner and NASA’s Chris Cassidy arrived at the orbiting lab in their Soyuz capsule six hours after taking off from Kazakhstan. They joined one Russian and two Americans who will get back to Earth in a week.
There was no social distancing at the height of 260 miles (420 kilometers): As they glided into the space station one after another, the new astronauts hugged the three already there. They had been in prelaunch isolation for the past month.
The newest crew members will stay on board until October, retaining the outpost functioning until SpaceX launches a couple of NASA astronauts from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, as soon as next month. It will be the first orbital launch of cosmonauts from the United States since NASA’s space shuttle program concluded in 2011.
Thursday’s liftoff was muted even by Russian standards, given the coronavirus pandemic all-encompassing the globe. NASA televised the liftoff live as typical, but just a few Russia-based employees of the space agency were at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
Cassidy’s wife, Peggy, viewed the launch from NASA’s Mission Control in Houston. She came back home a few weeks ago, after bidding goodbye to her husband at cosmonaut headquarters in Star City, Russia.
“No virus is resilient than the human desire to discover,” tweeted NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “I’m indebted to the entire @NASA and @roscosmos teams for their devotion to making this launch a success.”
On the day before liftoff, the astronauts said they felt incredible after being in strict quarantine. The scarce crowds mostly stayed a safe distance from the astronauts; even the Orthodox priest giving the customary blessing stood several feet away.
“Understandably, we’d love to have our families here with us, but it’s what we comprehend we have to do to be protected,” Cassidy said Wednesday. “The entireworld is also influenced by the same crisis.”
Added Ivanishin: “We’ve been completely quarantined at this final stage of training.”
There was another twist, besides coronavirus: Vagner and Ivanishin were appointed to the flight just two months ago after one of the actual Russian crewmen had an eye injury.
Because of the late crew exchange, Vagner and Ivanishin had no clothes waiting for them at the space station. They took a few extra clothes with them on the Soyuz, with more due to reach on the next Russian supply ship later this month.
Officials from the Russian Space Agency and NASA were among only a few to address the astronauts, shielded behind a glass wall, before they left for the launch pad. The room is typically packed with friends, family and space program types; on Thursday, the rows of seats were nearly all empty. Journalists were among those kept away.
“It was a spectacular launch and docking,” NASA’s Mission Control radioed from Houston after the crew arrived. “And while we want we had everyone to see you depart from Baikonur, we know your family and friends, and your whole NASA family, were watching the entire way and couldn’t be more proud.”
We’re just delighted to get here,” replied Cassidy, a Navy captain.
This is the third spaceflight for Ivanishin and Cassidy, and the first for Vagner.
Already aboard—and due to return to Earth on April 17—are NASA’s Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir, and Russian Oleg Skripochka.
The manager of Roscosmos—Russia’s space agency—said previously this week that nine employees have tested positive for coronavirus. Roscosmos controls an extensive network of production plants and launch facilities, and has almost 200,000 employees, said director Dmitry Rogozin, who was present at Thursday’s launch.