A Russian Soyuz rocket on Sunday blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan to deliver three new crew members to the International Space Station, including Italy’s first female astronaut.
A Soyuz capsule carrying station commander Terry Virts from US space agency NASA, Soyuz commander Anton Shkaplerov from the Russian Federal Space Agency and first-time flier Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency lifted off at 9:01pm GMT.
Less than six hours later, the capsule flew into a berthing port on the Russian side of the station as the two ships sailed about 418km over the central Pacific Ocean, said NASA mission commentator Kyle Herring from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
The station, owned and operated by 15 nations, serves as an orbiting laboratory for life science, materials research, technology development and other experiments.
“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,” he said.
The US$100 billion research laboratory has been short-staffed since Nov. 9 when Russian cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, European astronaut Alexander Gerst and NASA’s Reid Wiseman returned home after five-and-a-half months in orbit.
The three astronauts join three others already aboard the orbiting station: Barry Wilmore of NASA and Russians Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova.
Cristoforetti’s arrival made it the second time in the station’s 16-year history that two women have been aboard on long-term missions
Cristoforetti, 37, an Italian Air Force pilot, deflected questions about being Italy’s first female astronaut during a Webcast prelaunch press conference from Kazakhstan on Saturday.
“I have done nothing special to be the first Italian woman to fly to space. I just wanted to fly to space and I happen to be the first,” Cristoforetti, speaking in Russian, said through a translator.
The new crew faces a busy six months in orbit, including a trio of spacewalks to prepare the station for a new fleet of US commercial space taxis due to begin flying astronauts to the station in late 2017.
However, their arrival means major food upgrades for the other three astronauts aboard, with nearly a kilo of caviar in their baggage and an espresso machine.
“There will be 15 boxes of 30 grams each of caviar, but also apples, oranges, tomatoes and 140 doses of freeze dried milk and black tea without sugar,” a space station official was quoted as saying by Russian press agency TASS.
The crew will also finally be able to enjoy a decent brew thanks to the 20kg espresso machine designed by famed Italian coffee makers Lavazza and engineering firm Argotec, which specializes in making space food.
Additional reporting by AP and AFP
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