Despite worsening relations between East and West, a Russian cosmonaut joined two NASA crew members and a Japanese astronaut veteran for launch aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule on Wednesday, beginning a one-day flight to the International Space Station.

In SpaceX’s futuristic spacesuits, Anna Kikinathe only female cosmonaut in Russia, crew commander 5 Nicole MannJosh Kasada and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 12 p.m. ET.

Pushed skyward by 1.7 million pounds of thrust, Falcon 9 arced northeast, trailing a brilliant jet of flame from its nine first-stage engines as it smoothly accelerated, consuming fuel and losing weight.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from the Kennedy Space Center, carrying two NASA astronauts, a Japanese space veteran and a Russian cosmonaut — the first to fly on an American rocket in nearly 20 years — on a 29-hour flight to the International Space Station.

NASA / Joel Kowsky

Nine minutes later, after disembarking the first stage for recovery on the landing barge, the Falcon 9 upper stage lifted the Crew Dragon — Endurance — out of the atmosphere and into Earth orbit, the first leg of a 29-hour rendezvous with the space station.

“On behalf of the entire launch and recovery team, it has been an honor and a pleasure to participate in this mission with you,” SpaceX’s launch director said over the radio. “Oh my gosh, hold on. Hooray.”

“Awesome!” Mann replied from orbit. “Many thanks to the Falcon team. Wow! It was a smooth ride uphill! We have three rookies who are very excited to be in space right now and one veteran astronaut who is also excited to be back. “

A few minutes later, Casado showed off the crew’s zero-gravity indicator, a small Albert Einstein doll with fluffy white hair. He said the mascot was chosen because of Einstein’s understanding of gravity, or the lack of it, which helped pave the way for his theory of general relativity.

SpaceX thanked him for the clarification, prompting Cassado to add, “My crewmates are just happy we didn’t break out the dry erase board and go into more detail.”

After entering orbit, the astronauts were shown a doll of Albert Einstein (above right), which served as their “zero gravity indicator.” Such toys are a tradition of the Russian space program and are now a tradition aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.


Mann, a Marine Corps colonel and F/A-18 aircraft carrier pilot, is the first Native American woman assigned to a space flight. Kasada has a doctorate in high-energy physics, is a Navy captain, and an accomplished pilot. Wakata, who has a doctorate in aerospace engineering, is making his fifth space flight with a total of 347 days in orbit.

The 38-year-old Kikina, like Mann and Kasada, is new to space, but like her American crewmates, she has undergone years of training in anticipation of being assigned to a flight. The last-minute switch from the expected Soyuz flight to Crew Dragon caught her by surprise.

“My supervisors just assigned me and told me, do you want to be part of crew 5?” Kikina told reporters, speaking in broken English. “Yes! Why not? But I was very surprised.”

Her addition to Crew 5 was the result of a new agreement between NASA and the Russian space agency to resume launching American astronauts aboard Soyuz spacecraft and begin launching astronauts aboard American space shuttles.

The idea is to ensure that at least one American and one Russian are always aboard the space station, even if a medical emergency or other problem forces one country’s spacecraft to leave early, taking the crew with it.

Wednesday’s launch marked the eighth piloted flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, the 178th flight of the Falcon 9 rocket overall and the 44th this year. Kikina became the first Russian woman to fly aboard a US spacecraft since December 2002, when cosmonauts Valery Korzun and Sergey Treshchev returned to Earth aboard the space shuttle Endeavour.

A camera on the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage captured the spectacular view of the Crew Dragon capsule moments after it separated to fly on its own.


“We’ve been training and preparing for this for years,” Casada said Saturday as the crew arrived in Florida for the launch. “I just can’t tell you how grateful we are for this opportunity. Now it’s time for us to start working on the space station.”

If all goes well, Mann and Cassada will follow an automated rendezvous and approach to the space station, moving to dock at the lab’s forward port around 4:57 p.m. Thursday.

They will be welcomed aboard by Crew 4 Commander Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hynes, Jessica Watkins and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristofaretti, the station’s current commander. They launched aboard Crew Dragon last April.

Also on board: cosmonauts Sergei Prokopiev, Dmitry Petelin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, who arrived at the laboratory complex on September 21 aboard the Soyuz spacecraft.

Initially, Kikina planned to fly on board “Soyuz”. But she was assigned to Crew 5 after NASA and Roscosmos, Russia’s federal space agency, agreed to a new seat-swapping plan that stems from the design of the space station itself.

The Russians provide the fuel and engines needed to keep the 930,000-pound lab in orbit, countering the effects of atmospheric drag with intermittent engine firings. Russian thrusters also move the station sideways when radar tracking indicates a close encounter with space debris.

For its part, NASA provides the lion’s share of the lab’s electricity with eight huge solar wings, 24-hour satellite communications and stabilizing gyroscopes that help maintain the station’s orientation.

Neither side can operate the station alone, and the exit of either partner would paralyze, if not end the useful life of the lab, at least in its current form.

Crew 5 astronauts strike a pose moments before heading to the launch pad to dock. From left to right: Astronaut Anna Kikina, Josh Kasada, Commander Nicole Mann and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata.

NASA / Joel Kowsky

NASA, the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan want to operate the station by 2030, while transitioning to planned commercial research stations in low Earth orbit. Russia has never committed to extending the station beyond 2024, and following sanctions imposed after the invasion of Ukraine, it was unclear whether Russia would stick with the station beyond the previously agreed 2024 target date.

During a Crew 5 briefing on Monday, veteran cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, now director of human spaceflight at Roscosmos, said he expects a decision on extending the ISS beyond 2024 next year.

“From the Russian side, we understand that we are extending our participation in the station with our government until 2024 and are starting to think about designing and building (a) new station,” he said, speaking in English. “But we know it’s not going to happen very soon.

“So we will probably continue to fly until we have new infrastructure that will allow us to have a continuous presence at least in low Earth orbit. So until then, we continue to fly together, we are going to fly until 2024 … and we will begin discussions to expand our participation in the ISS program with our government and hope to get permission to continue next year.”

Meanwhile, Russia and the US State Department signed an agreement on the exchange of seats.

“With the flight of Soyuz and the flight of crew 5, we will start what we call an integrated crew, or an exchange flight, where one crew member from the Russian segment will fly on the American apparatus and one American will fly on the Russian one,” Krikalev said.

“And this type of sharing will increase the strength of our program, and we will continue this practice to make our program more robust.”

Unlike previous flights, which cost NASA up to $90 million per seat in Soyuz, no money changes hands for future flights because the plan is a win-win. Rubio and Quiquino are the first to run under the new seat-swapping agreement.

With a ready smile and an air of competence, Kikina cheerfully answers questions from American journalists. But she does not discuss Ukraine in relation to the USA and Russia. When asked if the topic came up in discussions with NASA crew members, she said, “No, never.”

“I’m thinking a lot about my tasks right now, about being in Crew Dragon 5,” she said. “And then I thought a lot about working at the station, because in Russia I trained a lot and practiced the program of Russian stations.”

Rubio was more open.

“It is important to realize that there is a long history of cooperation dating back to the Apollo-Soyuz program, the Mir shuttle program and more than 20 years of working together on the ISS,” he said.

“It just builds camaraderie and trust in a way that’s really important to maintain, especially at times like this when there’s tension and other aspects. Therefore, it is a great honor for me to represent our country and I am proud to be here. I can’t stress enough how good a thing I think this is.”