IT’S already being hailed as the fastest, highest and furthest way to avoid the coronavirus pandemic. Yesterday two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut blasted off aboard a Soyuz 2.1a rocket from Site 31 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to spend six months in space.

Described as “a perfect launch”, the Soyuz rocket carrying the Soyuz M-16 spacecraft with the three men aboard took off at 9.05am BST, 1.05 p.m. local Kazakh time, on the six-hour journey to reach the International Space Station (ISS).

Not surprisingly, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the launch was viewed by far fewer spectators than usual, with the three crew members agreeing that no family members or friends were to attend the launch which was broadcast live by the Russian space agency Roscomos and their American equivalent Nasa. The Soyuz M-16’s docking with the ISS – achieved with pinpoint accuracy at 3.13pm BST – was also broadcast live from 254 miles (408km) above the North Atlantic.

For the first launch since the pandemic began, the crew had been in quarantine before the flight and had tested negative for coronavirus, so there should be no risk of infection for them and the three crew members already aboard the ISS.


FORMER Navy SEAL turned Nasa astronaut Chris Cassidy and Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner of the Russian space agency Roscosmos are the trio making up what is known as Expedition 63 to the ISS.

They were very keen to emphasise the precautions they are taking against coronavirus.

“We have taken extra measures to make sure the crew arrives at the space station in good health,” said Ivanishin at a pre-flight press conference. “We didn’t have any guests, so we didn’t have any family members or friends arrive. We have been completely isolated at this final stage.”

Cassidy said in a Nasa interview before the launch: “We are implementing the exact same precautions as the rest of the world is with social distancing. The whole group has been very strict about no interactions beside the control team.”

Expedition commander Cassidy, 51, helped build the ISS as a Space Shuttle crew member and was on board the ISS in 2013. He will take charge once the current ISS crew of Expedition 62 – Nasa astronauts Drew Morgan and Jesica Meir and cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos – leave the ISS and return to Earth in nine days time.

Ivanishin, also 51, has been to the ISS twice but this is 34-year-old Vagner’s first visit. He told reporters at the press conference: “I’ve dreamed of doing this for many, many years. It is hard to leave those who are staying behind in this challenging time, but I want to thank everyone for helping us.


THIS year will mark the 20th anniversary of the ISS beginning operations with people on board.

The first crew on Expedition 1 was led by astronaut Bill Shepherd who by coincidence was also a former Navy SEAL like Cassidy.

Even before people arrived, the ISS was breaking new ground and setting records.

There had been space stations before, notably the Russian Mir, the US Skylab and European Space Agency Spacelab projects, but the ISS was designed to outgrow, outperform and outlast them all.

The ISS began with President Ronald Reagan who directed Nasa to build an International – he emphasised that word – space station in 1984. He set the agency a target of doing so within 10 years, but difficulties in putting together the international element – 15 countries would eventually participate – plus problems with technology at a time when the internet barely existed, and also delays caused by the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, meant that the first elements of the ISS did not go into space until late 1998.

Over the next 10 years, more and more modules, arrays and docking facilities would be added and removed from the ISS while astronaut Shepherd and cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev become the first crew to reside on the station in November 2000.

While Russia provided the first experimental area on the ISS, the USA’s Destiny Lab was added in 2001 and is still working as America’s main research facility on the ISS. Europe and Japan also have their own laboratory areas on the ISS.

Among other achievements, at 460 tons and the size of a rugby field, it is the largest man-made object in space. The ISS has successfully detected inter-planetary contamination, hosted dozens of experiments that will help future space exploration and is the base for cameras that help prevent natural disasters on Earth.

Almost 250 people from 20 countries have visited the ISS, including Major Tim Peake from the UK.

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The US Government has committed to extending its life to 2030.

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