Fresh trio arrives at space station and is ‘having a blast,’ two months after bad trip

Soyuz launch
A Russian Soyuz rocket rises from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, carrying three spacefliers into orbit. (NASA TV via YouTube)

A Russian Soyuz rocket sent three spacefliers to the International Space Station today, marking a return to normal operations after a hardware problem spoiled a similar flight in October.

NASA’s Anne McClain, Canada’s David Saint-Jacques and Russia’s Oleg Kononenko lifted off from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan into sunset skies as scheduled at 5:31 p.m. local time (3:31 a.m. PT). Gary Jordan, a launch commentator for NASA, hailed a “textbook launch and insertion into orbit.”

The station’s three current crew members could watch the launch from high above. “Looking forward to having a full crew of 6 up here again, at least for a few weeks,” German astronaut Alexander Gerst, the station’s current commander, said in a tweet.

The trio arrived at the station about six hours after liftoff, receiving hugs and handshakes from the station’s three waiting crew members as they floated through the hatch.

“I hope you have fun, and enjoy the view,” NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk told the crew over a phone link after the arrival.

“I can assure you that all of the smiles as we came through the hatch were very genuine,” McClain replied. “We’re having a blast so far, and we look forward to continuing the hard work.”

McClain was born and raised in Spokane, Wash., and her brother Jon brought up the local connection when he got on the phone. “There’s a party going on in Spokane, they’re partying on Juanita Road,” he said.

Two different spacefliers — NASA’s Nick Hague and Russia’s Aleksey Ovchinin — were supposed to have joined the crew on Oct. 11, but their flight was aborted during the rocket’s ascent, forcing them to return to Earth. Russian investigators determined that one of the Soyuz rocket’s side boosters didn’t separate cleanly, due to a problem with a bent sensor.

A series of trouble-free uncrewed Soyuz rocket launches cleared the way for today’s liftoff to proceed. Today’s crew rotation was moved up to ensure that there was no gap in the station’s staffing.

If for some reason Russia couldn’t have resumed crewed flights on a timely basis, the space station’s managers would have faced a hard choice over whether to leave the space station unoccupied for a time.

Now that crewed flights have resumed, Gerst and two other crew members, NASA’s Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Russia’s Sergey Prokopyev, are due to head back to Earth on Dec. 19. Meanwhile, Kononenko, Saint-Jacques and McClain will spend the next six and a half months in orbit.

Mission planners said that Hague and Ovchinin, along with NASA astronaut Christina Hammock Koch, would take the next crewed flight to the space station on Feb. 28.

This is an updated version of a report first published at 4:07 a.m. PT Dec. 3.

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