A three-man crew will fly to the International Space Station on Friday in a capsule honoring the 60th birthday of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first person in space.
Reminders of Gagarin’s success were all over the Russia-operated Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan as Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Piotr Dubrovnik and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei prepared for their six-month mission to edge of the orbital laboratory.
The Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft in which the trio takes off at 7.42 a.m. GMT has been named after the legendary cosmonaut and the portrait of Gagarin has been added to its exterior.
Gagarin also came to the traditional pre-flight press conference more than once, where the crew were asked how they plan to mark Monday’s birthday once in space.
“We are going to celebrate it together,” said Dubrovnik, 43, who is taking to space for the first time. “And we will work hard!”
The anniversary of Gagarin’s historic flight on April 12, 1961, is celebrated annually in Russia as Astronautics Day.
Friday’s takeoff will be from a different launch pad than the one used for Gagarin’s one and only mission, which saw him spend 108 minutes in orbit.
Last used in 2019, the Gagarin launch pad is being upgraded for a new generation of Soyuz rockets and is expected to resume operations in 2023.
Gagarin’s mission was a propaganda stunt for the Soviet Union and a huge victory in the space race with the West, which became one of the most exciting subplots of the Cold War.
Hard times for the space program
But the anniversary comes at a difficult time for the Russian space industry, which has suffered a number of setbacks in recent times, ranging from industry corruption scandals to an aborted takeoff interrupting a manned mission in 2018.
Perhaps more importantly, Roscosmos and Baikonur lost their monopoly on manned ISS launches last year, as Elon Musk’s reusable Space X rockets transported astronauts from NASA to the station from American soil.
The emergence of commercial competitors has left Roscosmos with a financial headache – NASA has paid the company tens of millions of dollars per seat for astronauts sent to the ISS.
Russian space officials are still talking about new ventures, including bringing back samples of Venus and creating a rocket capable of making 100 round trips in space.
Yet the space budget has shrunk year after year, with President Vladimir Putin prioritizing increased military spending.
Space has proven to be a rare area of cooperation between Russia and the West amid growing geopolitical tensions.
But the ISS project, which started in 2000, is expected to be abandoned before the end of this decade.
Despite rumors that NASA and Roscosmos are heading in different directions as the space station comes to an end, crews stressed the importance of good relations for continued progress.
“When we first started we were competing with each other and that was one of the reasons we were so successful in the early days of human spaceflight,” said Vande Hei, who poked fun at the haircut he gave himself in quarantine before his second mission aboard the ISS.
“Over time, we realized that we could work a bit more together … I hope this continues in the future.”
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