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Four astronauts are scheduled to return home from the International Space Station this week, capping off a nearly six-month mission in space, but rough weather at the crew’s splashdown site is forcing a delay.
The mission, which includes some historic firsts, moved forward even as rising geopolitical tensions brew on the ground.
The four crew members — astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada of NASA, astronaut Koichi Wakata of JAXA, or Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and cosmonaut Anna Kikina of Roscosmos — took off aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft at 12 p.m. ET from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
After reaching orbit, NASA shared footage of the crew aboard their capsule, sharing their excitement as they explained that they brought along a “freefall indicator” — a small, stuffed doll in the likeness of Albert Einstein. The toy was left to float around the cabin, signaling that the crew had entered weightlessness.
Einstein, who first conceptualized the Theory of Relativity, had the “happiest thought of his entire life” when he realized that a “person in freefall can feel their own weight,” Cassada explained in a dispatch from the Crew Dragon spacecraft.
“We live in the same world, we live in the same universe. Sometimes we experience it in a very different way from our neighbors. We can all keep that in mind … and continue to do amazing things,” Cassada said, and Kikina could be seen pumping her fist as he spoke. “And do it together.”
In pictures: SpaceX's historic Crew-5 launch
Dubbed Crew-5, the mission is the sixth astronaut flight launched as a joint endeavor between NASA and SpaceX, a privately held aerospace company, to the space station.
The spaceflight marks a historic moment, as Mann not only became the first Native American woman ever to travel to space. She’s also serving as mission commander, making her the first woman ever to take on such a role for a SpaceX mission.
What’s more, Kikina is the first Russian to join a SpaceX mission as part of a ride-sharing deal NASA and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, inked in July. Her participation in the flight is the latest clear signal that, despite mounting tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the decades-long US-Russia partnership in space will persist — at least for now.
The Crew Dragon spacecraft is now on a slow, precise trek to the ISS, which orbits about 200 miles (322 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface. The spacecraft is aiming to dock with the space station on Thursday around 5 p.m. ET.
What’s notable about this flight?
Launching NASA astronauts to the space station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is nothing new. The space agency collaborated with SpaceX for years to transition the task of shuttling people to and from the space station after NASA retired its Space Shuttle Program in 2011.
With the return of astronaut launches from US soil, SpaceX has offered a stage for several historic firsts. The Crew-4 Dragon mission, for example, carried NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins, the first Black woman ever to join the ISS crew.
On this flight, Mann, a registered member of the Wailacki tribe of the Round Valley Reservation, became the first Native American woman ever to travel to orbit.
“I am very proud to represent Native Americans and my heritage,” Mann told reporters before launch. “I think it’s important to celebrate our diversity and also realize how important it is when we collaborate and unite, the incredible accomplishments that we can have.”
In her role as commander, Mann will be responsible for ensuring the spacecraft is on track from the time it launches until it docks with the ISS and again when it returns home with the four Crew-5 astronauts next year. Never before has a woman taken on the commander role on a SpaceX mission, though a couple of women served in that position during the Space Shuttle Program.
Kikina, the Roscosmos cosmonaut, became the first Russian ever to launch on a SpaceX vehicle at a time when US-Russian relations are hitting near fever pitch over the Ukraine war.
Officials at NASA have said repeatedly that joint operations with Russia on the ISS, where the two countries are the primary operators, will remain isolated from the fray. Kikina’s flight comes just weeks after NASA’s Dr. Frank Rubio launched to the ISS aboard a Roscosmos Soyuz capsule.
“I really love my crewmates,” Kikina told reporters after she arrived at the Florida launch site on Saturday. “I really feel good, comfortable. … We will do our job the best way: happy.”
During a post-launch news conference, Sergei Krikalev, the executive director of Human Space Flight Programs at Roscosmos, commented on the significance of the US-Russian partnership.
“We just continue what was started many years ago, in 1975 when the Apollo-Soyuz crew worked together,” Krikalev said, referring to an in-space meet up in 1975 that became a symbol of post-Cold War cooperation between the United States and Russia. “Now we continue that.”
Who are the other astronauts on board?
Mann and her fellow NASA astronaut Josh Cassada, who grew up in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, both joined NASA in 2013. Cassada has described Mann as one of his “closest friends on the planet.”
As with Mann, this mission is the first trip to space for Cassada and Kikina.
For veteran astronaut Wakata, who has previously flown on both NASA’s space shuttle and Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, this trip marks his fifth spaceflight mission.
“I still remember when I first flew and saw our beautiful home planet,” he recalled during an August press conference. “It was so wonderful, such a beautiful planet, then I felt very lucky to be able to call this planet our home.”
What will they do in space?
After reaching the ISS, the crew will join the seven astronauts already aboard the ISS — including four NASA astronauts, a European Space Agency astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts.
There will be a handover period, where the current ISS crew will help the newly arrived astronauts settle in before a separate Crew Dragon spacecraft brings the four astronauts who were part of SpaceX’s Crew-4 mission back home.
Then the Crew-5 astronauts will set to work conducting spacewalks, during which astronauts exit the ISS, to maintain the space station’s exterior, as well as performing more than 200 science experiments.
“Experiments will include studies on printing human organs in space, understanding fuel systems operating on the Moon, and better understanding heart disease,” according to NASA.
Crew-5 is slated to return from space in about five months.