Three astronauts have arrived at the International Space Station after departing the virus-plagued Earth with little fanfare and no family members at the launch site to bid them farewell.
Nasa’s Chris Cassidy and Russians Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner arrived at the orbiting lab in a Soyuz capsule six hours after blasting off from Kazakhstan. They joined two Americans and one Russian who will return to Earth in a week.
The space station’s newest crew members will remain on board until October, keeping the outpost running until SpaceX launches a pair of Nasa astronauts from Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre as early as next month. It will be the first orbital launch of astronauts from the US since Nasa’s space shuttle programme ended in 2011.
Thursday’s lift-off was low-key even by Russian standards, given the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. Nasa televised the lift-off live as usual, but only a few Russia-based American space agency employees were at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
Mr Cassidy’s wife Peggy watched the launch from Nasa’s Mission Control in Houston. She returned home a few weeks ago after saying goodbye to her husband at cosmonaut headquarters in Star City, Russia.
On the eve of lift-off, the astronauts said they felt fantastic after being in strict quarantine for the past month. The sparse crowds mostly stayed a safe distance from the astronauts, and even an Orthodox priest offering the customary blessing stood several feet away.
“Obviously, we’d love to have our families here with us, but it’s what we understand we have to do to be safe,” Mr Cassidy said on Wednesday. “The whole world is also impacted by the same crisis.”
Mr Ivanishin said: “We’ve been completely isolated at this final stage of training.”
He and Mr Vagner were assigned to the flight just two months ago after one of the original Russian crewmen suffered an eye injury.
Because of the late swap, they had no clothes waiting for them at the space station. They took a few extra outfits with them on the Soyuz, with more due to arrive on the next Russian supply ship later this month.
“This is your day. You worked so hard to get here,” said Tricia Mack, head of Nasa’s human spaceflight programmes in Russia.
The Russian Space Agency’s Sergei Krikalev, a former cosmonaut who served on the space station’s first crew almost 20 years ago, assured the astronauts that everything was going to be fine.
The director of Roscosmos — Russia’s space agency — said earlier this week that nine employees had tested positive for coronavirus.
Roscosmos controls a sprawling network of production plants and launch facilities, and has about 200,000 employees, said director Dmitry Rogozin, who attended Thursday’s launch.
This is the third space flight for Mr Cassidy and Mr Ivanishin, and the first for Mr Vagner.
Already on board — and due to return to Earth on April 17 — are Nasa’s Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan, and Russian Oleg Skripochka.