NASA astronaut set to launch on Russian rocket as US transitions to private spacecraft

A new crew of three astronauts are launching to the International Space Station late tonight, blasting off on a Russian Soyuz rocket out of Kazakhstan. The trio are heading to the station about a month ahead of SpaceX’s next crewed Dragon launch, which will bring another set of four astronauts aboard the ISS in mid-November.

Heading up on this Soyuz flight are two Russian cosmonauts — Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov — and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, on her second trip to space. The trio will join three crew members who have been living on the ISS since April: Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy. However, their living arrangement won’t last long. Cassidy and his cosmonaut crew mates are slated to head back to Earth on October 21st, riding inside the Soyuz capsule that brought them to the space station.

Just a few weeks later, in early- to mid-November, Rubins and her team are set to welcome the four-member crew of SpaceX’s first operational Crew Dragon mission, called Crew-1. That flight will carry three NASA astronauts — Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker — and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi to the ISS for a six-month stay. Their arrival on SpaceX’s new passenger vehicle will bring the total population of the ISS to seven — a larger cohort than usual for the ISS, which has typically held six-person crews since the end of the Space Shuttle program.

Rubins’ flight on the Soyuz comes amid a time of transition in NASA’s human spaceflight program. Since the last flight of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the only way NASA astronauts could get to the station was on Russia’s Soyuz rocket. But through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, two private companies — SpaceX and Boeing — have been developing their own space capsules to take NASA astronauts to and from the space station. In May, SpaceX demonstrated that its Crew Dragon spacecraft could safely ferry astronauts to and from the station when it delivered two NASA crew members to the ISS. Boeing’s first crewed test flight is currently scheduled for next year.

The Soyuz rocket rolling out to the pad.
Image: NASA

SpaceX and Boeing’s vehicles were supposed to be ready as early as 2017, but their development programs suffered from years of delays. In the meantime, NASA continued to purchase seats on Russia’s Soyuz for US astronauts — at roughly $80 million per person — though the agency tried to limit the amount, hoping that the Commercial Crew vehicles would come online soon. NASA had hoped they’d be ready last year, but when more delays seemed imminent, the space agency purchased one last Soyuz seat — the one that Rubins will ride in early tomorrow morning.

Moving forward, NASA hopes that it can work out seat trades with Roscosmos, where Russian cosmonauts will ride on SpaceX and Boeing’s vehicles in exchange for NASA astronauts flying on the Soyuz. However, NASA has not announced any of these trades yet, so it’s unclear when the next American astronaut will fly on the Soyuz after this mission.

The Soyuz is slated to take off form the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 1:45AM ET on Wednesday morning. It’ll be a quick trip to the ISS. The Soyuz capsule will only orbit Earth twice, spending three hours in space before docking with the International Space Station. Docking is scheduled to take place around 4:52AM ET on Wednesday, and the crew should be on board the ISS less than two hours later.

NASA’s coverage of the launch will begin at 12:45AM ET, so if you’re up late (or up early), tune in to watch the Soyuz launch live.

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