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US-Russian crew blasts off for International Space Station

A US-Russian space crew blasted off Thursday to the International Space Station following a tight quarantine amid the coronavirus pandemic.

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos’s Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner lifted off as scheduled at 1:05 p.m. (0805 GMT, 4:05 a.m. EDT) from the Russian-operated Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Their Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft is set to dock at the station six hours later.

Russian space officials have taken extra precautions to protect the crew during training and pre-flight preparations as the coronavirus outbreak has swept the world.

Speaking to journalists Wednesday in a video link from Baikonur, Cassidy said the crew had been in “a very strict quarantine” for the past month and is in good health.

“We all feel fantastic,” he said.

Commander Anatoly Ivanishin also noted that extra measures have been taken to keep the crew healthy and safe before launch, adding that none of the crew has had any guests — no family or friends.

“We’ve been completely isolated at this final stage of training,” Ivanishin said.

Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin said earlier this week that nine employees of the state corporation have tested positive for coronavirus. Roscosmos, which controls a sprawling network of production plants and launch facilities, has about 200,000 employees, Rogozin said.

As part of additional precautions, Roscosmos has barred reporters from covering the launch contrary to usual practice.

Ivanishin and Vagner had trained as back-ups for the other two Russians and were picked for the flight only in February after a member of the original Russian crew suffered an eye injury.

The International Space Station is currently operated by Russian Oleg Skripochka and NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan, who are due to return to Earth on April 17.

The launch is the first time a crew rides a Soyuz-2.1a booster into orbit.

The Soyuz-FG variant of Russia’s venerable Soyuz launcher, which previous carried Soyuz crews into space, was retired in 2019.

The Soyuz-2.1a’s upgrades include a modernized digital flight control system, replacing the analog guidance system on older Soyuz models, along with improvements to engine injection systems.

The digital control system allows the Soyuz-2.1a rocket to execute a roll program a few seconds after liftoff to reach the correct azimuth to align its flight path with the space station’s orbit.

The Soyuz-FG rocket previously used to launch Soyuz crews had to be rotated into the correct orientation on the launch pad before liftoff.

An unpiloted Soyuz capsule rode a Soyuz-2.1a rocket to orbit August 2019 on a test flight to ensure the upgraded launcher configuration could safely loft station crews into space.

The Soyuz-2.1a rocket variant has launched dozens of times since 2004, including flights with Progress cargo freighters on missions to resupply the space station.

The orbiting research lab has cost the partner nations (including the US and Russia) more than $100 billion over three decades, and maintaining the outpost requires regular crew rotations and supply deliveries.

Header:

At the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, Expedition 63 crewmembers Chris Cassidy of NASA (left) and Anatoly Ivanishin (center) and Ivan Vagner of Roscosmos (right) pose for pictures in front of a Soyuz trainer during the second day of Soyuz qualification exams March 12. They were scheduled to launch April 9 on the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for a six-and-a-half month mission on the International Space Station.

Andrey Shelepin/Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center