This past Sunday, a Russian Soyuz rocket blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan to deliver three new crew members to the International Space Station (ISS). Included in the group is Terry Virts from NASA, Anton Shkaplerov from the Russian Federal Space Agency and Samantha Cristoforetti, Italy’s first female astronaut of the European Space Agency.
According to NASA mission commentator, Kyle Herring from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the capsule docked roughly six hours after its launch at 2101 GMT (4.01 p.m. EST), and flew into a berthing port on the Russian side of the station shortly afterward.
The ISS is currently the largest artificial structure in orbit – big enough to be seen with the naked eye. It largely functions as a research center for conducting various studies on life science, technology development and materials research – all from the microgravity environment of space. Today, the $100 billion dollar laboratory is currently operated by 15 separate nations.
On November 9th, Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, European astronaut, Alexander Gerst and NASA’s Reid Wiseman departed from the ISS after a 5.5-month stay. Since their leave, the station has been severely understaffed.
The new crew will now join three other astronauts already at the station: NASA’s Barry Wilmore, Russians Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova. They will spend roughly six months in orbit in order to conduct a series of space walks that will prepare the station for the arrival of U.S. commercial space taxis; by 2017, this fleet will be utilized to fly other astronauts to the station.
Of the occasion, Virts has stated in a pre-launch press conference, “I think that 100 years from now, 500 years from now, people will look back on this as the initial baby steps that we took going into the solar system,” Virts told a pre-launch press conference.
“In the same way that we look back on Columbus and the other explorers 500 years ago, this is the way people will look at this time in history.”
Shkaplerov, Virts and Cristoforetti will remain on the International Space Station until mid-May. The current crew will return to Earth two months earlier, in early March.