Lighting up the pre-dawn sky, a Soyuz rocket roared to life and streaked into orbit Tuesday carrying a Russian cosmonaut and two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, boosting the lab’s crew back to six and the U.S. complement to four NASA-sponsored astronauts.
The expanded U.S. crew takes advantage or near-term Russian downsizing, allowing more time for on-board research in the station’s American-led segment.
Strapped into the Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft, commander Alexander Misurkin, NASA flight engineer Mark Vande Hei and astronaut Joe Acaba blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:17:02 p.m. EDT (GMT-4; 3:17 a.m. Wednesday local time), kicking off a six-hour, four-orbit rendezvous with the space station.
The workhorse Soyuz booster put on a spectacular show, riding a brilliant jet of exhaust into a clear sky. Live video from inside the crew compartment showed Misurkin and his crewmates calmly monitoring cockpit displays as the booster accelerated toward orbit.
Eight minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff, the Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft was released from the booster’s upper stage, antennas deployed and two solar wings unfolded and locked in place as the crew set off after the space station.
Misurkin, making his second trip to the lab complex, rookie Vande Hei and station veteran Acaba executed a smooth six-hour rendezvous, docking at the space station’s upper Poisk module at 10:55 p.m. four orbits after launch.
“Contact! We have mechanical contact,” Misurkin, speaking through a translator, radioed Russian flight controllers as the nose of the Soyuz was captured by the Poisk docking port. “And we have docking mechanism engaged.”
“Great!” a controller replied. “Copy.”
Standing by to welcome Misurkin and his crewmates aboard, after lengthy checks to verify a structurally sound, airtight seal, were Expedition 53 commander Randy Bresnik, cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy and European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli.
Launched to the station July 28 aboard the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft, Ryazanskiy, Bresnik and Nespoli have had the lab to themselves since Sept. 2 when Soyuz MS-04 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin, Jack Fischer and Peggy Whitson — NASA’s most experienced…