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Three-man crew docks at ISS after flight honouring Gagarin
By Christopher RICKLETON
Almaty, Kazakhstan (AFP) April 9, 2021

NASA's Mark Vande Hei, 2 cosmonauts dock at Int'l Space Station
Washington DC (UPI) Apr 9, 2021 - A joint U.S.-Russia crew aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket successfully docked at the International Space Station Friday morning about 261 miles in the skies above northern China, officials said.

The Russian Soyuz rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:42 a.m. EDT with NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov on board.

The Soyuz MS-18 booster docked with the Earth-facing side of the Russian segment of the space station at 7:05 a.m. EDT following a two-orbit, three-hour flight, NASA said.

The hatch opening is scheduled for about 9 a.m.

With the arrival of Expedition 65, the station's population grew from seven to 10 for a few days.

The three men join the crew of Expedition 64, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov -- who have been there since October -- and the four-member crew of SpaceX Dragon Resilience, who entered the orbital a month later.

"Hey, Expedition 64 -- set the dinner table for 10 tonight," Vande Hei tweeted shortly before liftoff. "Can't wait to join you on [the space station] in a few hours!"

Rubins, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov are scheduled to depart for Earth next week with Shannon Walker of SpaceX to assume command during a ceremony on Thursday, NASA spokesman Dan Huot said.

The journey occurs days before the 60th anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human in space on April 12, 1961.

To mark the occasion, Expedition 65 has a special mission patch adorning the fairing of their launch vehicle, Huot said.

It is Vande Hei's second trip to the station.

NASA said Expeditions 64 and 65 will continue with hundreds of biology, biotechnology, physical science experiments aboard "humanity's only permanently occupied microgravity laboratory.

(stock image only)

A three-man crew docked at the international Space Station Friday after a flight honouring the 60th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first person in space.

A Soyuz capsule carrying Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei docked at 1105 GMT, footage broadcasted by NASA TV showed.

"There is contact!" Russia's space agency Roscosmos wrote on Twitter.

"Hey, Expedition 64 -- set the dinner table... Can't wait to join you on @Space_Station in a few hours!" Vande Hei tweeted to the crew on board the ISS hours before blast-off.

The launch came just ahead of Monday's anniversary of Gagarin's historic flight on April 12, 1961.

Reminders of his achievement were everywhere at the Russia-operated Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan as Novitsky, Dubrov and Vande Hei prepared for their half-year mission aboard the orbital lab.

The Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft that the trio took off in has been named after the legendary cosmonaut and Gagarin's portrait has been added to its exterior.

Gagarin also came up more than once in the traditional pre-flight press conference on Thursday, where the crew was asked how they planned to mark the anniversary once in space.

"We'll celebrate it together," said 43-year-old Dubrov, who is flying to space for the first time. "And we'll work hard!"

Friday's blast-off was from a different launchpad than the one used for Gagarin's one and only mission, which saw him spend 108 minutes in orbit.

- Tough times -

Last used in 2019, the Gagarin launchpad is undergoing upgrades in preparation for a new generation of Soyuz rockets and expected to return to action in 2023.

Gagarin's mission was a propaganda coup for the Soviet Union and a huge win in the space race with the West, which became one of the Cold War's most exciting subplots.

But the anniversary comes at a difficult time for Russia's space industry, which has suffered a number of setbacks recently, from industry corruption scandals to an aborted take-off scuppering a manned mission in 2018.

Perhaps most importantly, Roscosmos and Baikonur last year lost their monopoly over manned ISS launches, as reusable rockets from Elon Musk's Space X delivered NASA astronauts to the station from American soil.

The emergence of commercial competitors has left Roscosmos with a financial headache -- NASA has paid the company tens of millions of dollars per seat for astronauts sent to the ISS.

Russian space officials still talk up new ventures, including bringing back samples from Venus and creating a rocket capable of making 100 round trips to space.

Yet the space budget has fallen year by year as President Vladimir Putin prioritises increased military spending.

- Crowded space station -

Space has proven a rare area of cooperation between Russia and the West amid rising geopolitical tensions.

But the ISS project, which began in 2000, is expected to be retired before the end of this decade.

Despite talk of NASA and Roscosmos heading in different directions as the space station winds down, crews have stressed the importance of good relations for continued progress.

"When we first started we were competing with each other and that was one of the reasons we were so successful at the beginning of human space flight," said Vande Hei, who poked fun at the haircut he gave himself during quarantine ahead of his second mission aboard the ISS.

"As time went on we realised we could achieve a bit more working together... I hope that will continue into the future."

The ISS, which is typically home to six people at a time, is set to be fairly crowded for the next week, with seven astronauts and cosmonauts on board before the trio arrived.

NASA's Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Sergei Kud-Sverchkov are set to return from the space station on April 17.



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The fiery chief of Russia's troubled space programme
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Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia's troubled space agency Roscosmos, is hardly your typical bureaucrat. Brash and brazen, the former diplomat has made his name with provocative tweets and boisterous claims. But he is equally well-known for leading the once-prized Soviet space programme during years of corruption scandals and technological stagnation. In 2014, Rogozin, then a deputy prime minister in charge of space, responded to Western sanctions on Russia with a tweet suggesting the Unite ... read more

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