An American and two Russians boarded the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday after a lightning journey from Earth on a mission that will see the Olympic torch for next year’s Sochi Games taken into space for the first time.
Michael Hopkins of NASA, and Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky of Russia blasted off without a hitch from the Baikonur space center that Moscow leases from Kazakhstan.
Their Soyuz-TMA-10M capsule docked successfully with the ISS just six hours later, in a new short-cut route now used by the Russian space agency. The new trio shortly afterwards joined the existing three-person crew on board.
The new team was greeted on board by Russian Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and his two flight engineers — Karen Nyberg of NASA and Italian Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency.
Kotov and Ryazansky are expected to make history during the mission by carrying into open space the Olympic torch for the Winter Games that Russia is hosting in February in the Black Sea city of Sochi.
The torch, which on Oct. 6 is due to start a relay around Russia, is not yet with the cosmonauts and is due to be carried up to space by the next Soyuz crew, who are due to travel to the ISS on Nov. 7.
Kotov and Ryazansky are expected to take it into open space on a spacewalk on Nov. 9, although Russian officials have made it clear that the torch will at no point be lit, for safety reasons.
It will then be returned to Earth by Yurchikhin when he returns home with his two crewmates Parmitano and Nyberg days later on Nov. 11.
The capsule orbited the Earth just four times on its way to the ISS as opposed to the usual 30, under a technique originally devised in the Soviet era, but only adopted on a regular basis in the past year.
Scientists and space travelers had long weighed the benefits of such a sprint run.
The longer flight allows crew members to get better acclimated to the stresses of space, while also testing their physical endurance — the ride takes a full 48 hours.
The shortcuts were abandoned after a few trial runs by the Soviet Union because one cosmonaut became so violently ill during the voyage that mission control at one point feared for his life, but two such quick trips were successfully completed earlier this year and Russia decided to repeat the experience with a view to making them standard for future travel to the ISS.
Russian state television reported that among those present at the launch at Baikonur was French actor Gerard Depardieu, who was awarded Russian citizenship by Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year.
The four-month stay of the existing team stationed in the ISS has been more eventful than they might have liked.
Parmitano suffered a scare during a spacewalk on July 16 when his helmet began to fill with an unidentified liquid.
“I feel that the temperature of the liquid is too cold to be sweat and above all I have the distinct sensation it is increasing in volume,” Parmitano later wrote in a gripping account of the incident in a post on the European Space Agency Web site.
He described being blinded and suffocating as he struggled to make his way back to the airlock.
Russia, meanwhile, is struggling to prove to the world’s other spacefaring nations that its mostly Soviet-designed systems are reliable enough to continue humans’ conquest of space.