NASA astronaut Loral O’Hara and two Russian cosmonauts rocketed away from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan Friday and set off after the International Space Station to replace three crew members wrapping up a full year in orbit.
Soyuz MS-24/70S commander Oleg Kononenko, flanked on the left by co-pilot Nikolai Chub and on the right by O’Hara, blasted off from the historic Russian launch site at 11:44 a.m. EDT (8:44 p.m. local time), lighting up the overnight sky as the Soyuz 2.1a rocket boosted the crew into space.
“We’re all very proud of you, we know you’ve worked hard to get to this point,” Ken Bowersox, chief of space operations at NASA, told the crew before launch. “I wish the capsule was big enough for all of us to go with you. It’s a little small for that, but our hearts will be with you, we’ll be watching and we’ll be here when you get back.”
The launching was timed to set up a fast-track three-hour, 11-minute rendezvous with the station and an automated docking at the lab’s Earth-facing Rassvet module at 2:56 p.m. EDT.
Standing by to welcome them aboard will be Soyuz MS-23/69S commander Sergey Prokopyev, cosmonaut Dmitri Petelin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, who were launched to the space station last Sept. 21 aboard a different Soyuz and are now nearing the end of an extended 371-day stay in orbit — the longest single flight yet for an American astronaut.
Also on hand to welcome O’Hara and company: SpaceX Crew-7 commander Jasmin Moghbeli, European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen, Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa and Russian cosmonaut Konstantin Borisov. They were launched to the station on Aug. 26, replacing four other Crew Dragon fliers who returned to Earth Sept. 4.
O’Hara, making her first space flight, plans to spend six months aboard the outpost while Kononenko and Chub, like the Soyuz crew they are replacing, plan to log another yearlong stay, returning to Earth in September 2024. At landing, Kononenko will have logged around 1,100 days in space across five flights, setting a new record for total time off planet.
“Oleg Kononenko is an extremely experienced commander,” O’Hara said in a pre-flight interview from Moscow. “It’s been really neat to get to work with him and learn from him as we go through all of our Soyuz training. And then our pilot Nikolai Chub, this is his first flight. He is just extremely technically competent. It’s been a lot of fun getting to work with both of them.”
Because O’Hara’s crewmates are spending a year aboard the station, another Soyuz will blast off on a so-called “taxi” flight next March when veteran commander Oleg Novitskiy, NASA’s Tracy Dyson and Belarus researcher Marina Vasilevskaya deliver a fresh ferry ship to the station.
Novitskiy, Vasilevskaya and O’Hara will return to Earth about 10 days later aboard the same Soyuz that carried O’Hara aloft on Friday. Kononenko, Chub and Dyson will remain in orbit until next September, coming home aboard the Soyuz MS-25/71S Soyuz delivered by Novitskiy.
In the near term, Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio will spend about 12 days or so packing up and familiarizing their three replacements with the intricacies of space station operations.
They plan to undock and return to Earth on Sept. 27, landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan at 6:14 a.m. EDT to close out their marathon mission, the longest single flight yet by an American astronaut and the third longest ever flown.
The world record holder is the late cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, with 438 days in orbit during a stay aboard Russia’s now-retired Mir space station in the 1990s. No. 2 on the list is retired cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev, with 380 days aloft aboard Mir.
In an earlier interview with ABC News, Rubio said such records “will soon be broken again. And that’s great, because that means we’re continuing to press forward.”
“As we prepare to push back to the moon and then onward on to, hopefully, Mars and farther (out) in the solar system, I think it’s really important that we learn just how the human body learns to adapt, and how we can optimize that process, so that we can improve our performance as we explore farther and farther out from Earth.”
Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin originally planned to come home in March, but their Soyuz MS-22 ferry ship suffered a massive coolant leak in December, presumably due to a micrometeoroid impact.
After an extensive analysis, the Russians concluded cabin temperatures likely could exceed safety limits during re-entry and the Soyuz MS-23/69S ferry ship was launched to the station in February, without a crew, to provide a ride home for Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio. To put the Russian crew-rotation schedule back on track, they were forced to spend an unexpected six months in space.
The biggest single challenge, Rubio said Wednesday, was being away from his wife and four children for so long.
“This was a big year for us,” he said. “We had our oldest finish off her plebe year at the Naval Academy. And then our second son headed off to West Point. And so yeah, just big challenges as they apply for and start of their college and young adult careers.
“But at the same time, we felt some incredible love and support and just the prayers from our family, our friends, our community. Honestly, seeing the support that my family was getting made it so much easier to be up here and focus on the mission. It just took that weight off my shoulders.”
While she’ll only be spending six months aboard the station, O’Hara said it will be the thrill of a lifetime, something she’s dreamed about since elementary school.
“I’m definitely most excited about actually launching and getting to space, just looking back and seeing the Earth from orbit,” she said. “You see it in all these pictures, but actually seeing it in person, I think will just be a pretty incredible experience.
“And then I’m also looking forward to learning how to fly (in weightlessness). So learning how to live and work in microgravity, just how to do all the daily tasks, sleeping and eating and showering and then using tools and equipment to do all of the research that we’re going to be doing.
“And then lastly, I’m looking forward to spending time with these guys on orbit and having dinners together and working together and just sharing that adventure.”
Growing up in the Houston area a few minutes from the Johnson Space Center, O’Hara earned a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Purdue University. Before joining NASA in 2017, she served as a research engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution helping with piloted and robotic submersibles.
She holds a private pilot license and is a certified EMT who volunteers with a local search-and-rescue team. She lists her hobbies as sailing, surfing, backpacking and skiing.
“For me, one of the bigger challenges that I’m anticipating is just not being able to go outside,” she said. “Spending time outside is important to me, and it’s kind of how I recharge my batteries. So I think it’ll be really interesting to just see what it’s like living in an environment where I can’t just, you know, pop outdoors for a few minutes to relax at the end of the day.”
But she’s been looking forward to the experience since second grade, when she first told her parents she wanted to be an astronaut. She even got to grow tomato seeds that flew aboard a space shuttle as part of a school project.
“I’m not really sure when I thought it would become a possibility,” she said. “I had gone off into ocean science and was doing ocean engineering, but I always had it in the back of my head that I should at least apply. Because if you don’t apply, there’s zero percent chance of becoming an astronaut! So I applied a couple times. And then I was pretty surprised to get an interview and then have the honor of being selected.”