An American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts successfully docked at the International Space Station (ISS) after a four-orbit, six-hour flight, bidding farewell to a pandemic-infested planet.
As part of Expedition 63, the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan early Thursday morning to take over some of the ISS’ operational duties over the next six months. As much of the world continues to adjust to a new normal amid the coronavirus pandemic, NASA says that parts of the mission preparation were similarly altered to ensure the safety of the three crewmembers.
“It’s been interesting. Life for us in the pre-launch period is always in quarantine. So, for me, I knew I was going to be in quarantine for these two weeks but what’s really different is that everyone else around us is in quarantine too just like the rest of the world,” said US flight engineer Chris Cassidy in a NASA Twitter broadcast. Cassidy was joined by Russian flight engineers Anatoly Ivanishin, and Ivan Vagner in Thursday’s launch.
“To see the impacts on that in terms of who from NASA can come over to support the launch, even with the Russian operational support team, will be much smaller. My family and launch guests will not be able to come.”
Personnel was trimmed down to a “skeletal crew” to provide “just the bare necessities” amid concerns over health and safety. Two weeks before their launch, astronauts typically undergo quarantine to determine whether their health is stable, banning contact with anyone other than flight surgeons and medical personnel who are already cleared and also under quarantine themselves. Such a “thorough protocol” is to ensure the astronauts are not only healthy before leaving, but will not bring any illnesses to the space station.
The crew joins the ISS during its year-long celebration of 20 years of constant human habitation every day since November of 2000. Additionally, the mission will also see the first-ever crew to launch from NASA’s commercial crew program, SpaceX Demo-2 Flight Test. Two astronauts will be launching in the “dragon” with a launch date still anticipated for mid-May.