The ‘Gagarin’ spaceship, carrying two Russian cosmonauts and one from the United States, landed on Friday at the International Space Station (ISS) on a mission honouring the 60th anniversary of the sending of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin.
“NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and two Russian cosmonauts arrived at the International Space Station Friday, bringing its number of residents to 10 for the coming week,” NASA announced in a press release.
Oleg Novitski and Piotr Doubrov, of the Russian agency Roscosmos, and NASA’s Vande Hei will spend six months at the ISS. The three men joined NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchov, who have been at the station since October, and the four-member crew of SpaceX Dragon Resilience, who entered the station in November, NASA reported.
Their Soyuz MS-18 spaceship, named after the legendary Soviet cosmonaut, took off from the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan on Friday, a few days ahead of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the flight on 12 April 1961 by Gagarin, whose profile was painted in blue at the top of the launcher.
Each year, the anniversary of Gagarin’s flight is celebrated with devotion and immense pride throughout Russia, where flowers are laid at the foot of the many monuments in his honour. His mission, which lasted 108 minutes, was a huge victory for the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in its space race against the United States, and upon returning to Earth, it was used heavily by the Soviet propaganda machine until his death in a plane accident in 1968.
The successive celebrations of Gagarin’s mission fail, however, to mask the difficulties Russia’s space sector has been experiencing. While it has huge experience and reliable equipment, such as the legendary Soyuz vessels dating back to the Soviet era, Russia has had a hard time innovating. Recent missions have been dogged by technical mishaps, and the sector has had problems with financing and corruption.
Last year, it also lost its monopoly on flights to the ISS, bowing to competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, a new reality that could mean huge financial losses for Roscosmos, which had been charging NASA millions of dollars for each slot on flights to the ISS.
The next SpaceX mission to the space station will take off on 22 April from Florida, with Frenchman Thomas Pesquet on board.
The tensions between Russia and the United States have also weakened space cooperation, one of the few areas in which mutual assistance between the two geopolitical enemies has survived.
The ISS project, launched in 2000, should end before 2030, and there is thus far no indication that it will be succeeded by a major project benefitting from an equivalent level of international cooperation.
In the meantime, the space teams continue to be the best promotors of the need for mutual support in order to move forward.
Russia and the United States owed their success in the field in part to the competition between them at the start of manned space travel, but later understood that they could achieve more if they worked together, Vande Hei said on Thursday, adding that he hoped this could continue.