The exchange flights between Roscosmos and NASA continue with the launch of Soyuz MS-24, which took place today Sept. 15, 2023. This time it is an American astronaut, Loral O’Hara, who flies aboard on the Soyuz. However, the most important news is that, after more than a year of forced stay in orbit, the crew that left with Soyuz MS-22 will finally be able to be replaced.
A textbook launch
15:44 UTC, from site 31/6 of the historic Kazakh Cosmodrome in Baikonur, a Soyuz 2.1a launcher brought the two Cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko, mission commander, and first officer Nikolai Chub into orbit. Together with them, as mission specialist, NASA astronaut Loral O’Hara.
In just three hours the crew reached their destination by docking with the International Space Station. This record duration of the journey from Earth to the ISS was made possible only after the transition to version 2.1 of the glorious Soyuz launcher, heir to that R7 Semyorka which inaugurated the space age with the flight of Sputnik-1 on Oct. 4,1957.
Finally the changeover
If two of the three crew members of the Soyuz MS-24 are on their first flight and will have been anxiously awaiting launch day, the same can be said for the two cosmonauts and the NASA astronaut who, thanks to the arrival of the new Soyuz, will have the opportunity to return to earth after more than a year spent in space.
We are talking about the current commander of the ISS, Sergei Prokopiev, cosmonaut Dmitri Petelin, and NASA astronaut Francisco Rubio.
The three, which departed on Sept. 9, 2022 with the Soyuz MS-22, were forced to a forced extension of their mission in orbit due to the well-known accident on Dec. 14, 2022 which damaged the air conditioning system of the service of their spacecraft.
To avoid that, during re-entry, it could overheat excessively putting the lives of the occupants in danger, the MS-22 was deorbited unmanned.
Fortunately, there were no problems and the capsule landed on Mar. 28, 2023 carrying only return material from the space station. Meanwhile, on Feb. 24, 2023 their lifeboat was launched without a crew: the Soyuz MS-23 which will bring them back to Earth on 9/27/2023, after 371 days in space, a new longest flight record on the ISS.
Meet the crew
Oleg Kononenko, the commander of Soyuz MS-24, is an experienced cosmonaut. Five times in space, he has four EVAs under his belt for a total of 24 h 28′ in outer space. His mission will not last six months as usual but will extend for 375 days returning with the Soyuz MS-25.
He will be the next space record holder collecting a total of 1111 days in the cosmos, exceeding Gennady Padalka’s previous record of 879 days by more than 200 days.
Nikolai Chub, the first officer, is on his first flight. He graduated in Economics and Computer Science and was appointed as a reserve member of the Soyuz MS-12 and MS-17 missions.
Immediately after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, he was denied the entry visa to the USA where he was going for a training session. Thanks to the personal intervention of NASA administrator Bill Nelson, the issue was resolved in a few days.
Loral O’Hara, mission specialist, is an aerospace engineer. Selected by NASA in 2017, she is on her first flight.
The importance of exchange flights
The active collaboration between the two space agencies, Roscosmos on one side and NASA on the other, began after the fall of the Soviet Union with the Shuttle-Mir flights.
The intent, already manifested by the Kosygin – Nixon agreements of 1973, to guarantee the safety of long-duration flights in the cosmos with the possibility of being able to provide mutual assistance to any crew in difficulty.
The international program of the ISS sees the two main agencies protagonists with the construction of the station divided almost equally: 50% by Russia and the rest by NASA with the help of Western partners such as ESA and JAXA.
Despite the difficult international situation deriving from the ongoing war in Ukraine, the agreements for the continuation of mixed-crew flights continued with the ratification, in 2022, of a further package of joint flights until 2025.
At the time of the Space Shuttle there was often a Russian cosmonaut as a member of the US shuttle crew. With the advent of new vehicles such as the Crew Dragon and, soon, the CST-100 Starliner, it became necessary that there on board at least one astronaut capable of flying a Soyuz and at least one cosmonaut capable of piloting an American vehicle. In the event of a serious emergency, no role would thus remain uncovered.
The next missions in collaboration
The next mixed crew flights will be those of the Crew-8 mission (launch scheduled for February 2024) with the crew: Matthew Dominick (USA), Michael Barratt (USA), Jeanette Epps (USA), and Alexander Grebenkin (RUS) and Soyuz MS-25 (launch scheduled for March 2024) with crew: Oleg Novitsky (RUS), Tracy Caldwell (USA) and Marina Vasilevskaya (BLR).
It is also expected but has not yet been definitively made official, that a cosmonaut will also participate in one of the first crewed missions of the CST-100.