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Russian rocket launches trio to space station, two months after aborted 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 trio was due to arrive at the station about six hours after liftoff.

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.

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.

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