World / Science & Health

On anniversary of first steps on moon, an American, an Italian and a Russian fly to the International Space Station

AFP-JIJI

U.S., Italian and Russian astronauts flew to the International Space Station on Saturday in a launch coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Alexander Skvortsov of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, NASA’s Andrew Morgan and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency set off on a six-hour journey to the orbiting science lab from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 1628 GMT.

A statement published on the Roscosmos website after the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft entered space stated that “all stages of the flight proceeded according to plan.”

A NASA TV commentator hailed a “textbook launch” amid “sweltering” weather at Baikonur, where daytime temperatures reached 43 degrees Celsius (117 degrees Fahrenheit) on Saturday.

The blast coincides with the date that NASA’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969, a defining moment in the space race with the Soviet Union.

Of the trio launching from the Kazakh steppe, only 53-year-old Skvortsov had been born at the time of the moon landing.

A veteran of two ISS missions, Skvortsov was the flight commander for the six-hour journey from Baikonur to the ISS.

Morgan, 43, flew for the first time.

Parmitano’s only previous stint at the ISS lasted 166 days and saw him become the first Italian to carry out a spacewalk.

Skvortsov, Morgan and Parmitano all come from military backgrounds and posed together in uniform in the build up to the launch.

The trio were welcomed into the ISS by Nick Hague and Christina Koch of NASA and Alexey Ovchinin of the Russian space agency Roscosmos after docking.

Ahead of the launch, 42-year-old Parmitano said the crew were “lucky and privileged” to have their launch coincide with the Apollo 11 date, and indicated that they were wearing badges honoring the anniversary.

Morgan paid tribute to the Apollo 11 landing as a “victory for all of mankind” but ducked a question on whether Russian cosmonauts would ever reach the moon — the Soviet Union only ever sent unmanned missions there.

NASA was “even more capable” of accomplishing great things when it did so “as part of an international cooperation,” Morgan said.

Five decades after the 1969 moon landing, Russia and the West are still competing in space, even if the emphasis is on cooperation at the ISS.

NASA no longer operates manned flights to the ISS, leaving it wholly dependent on Roscosmos’ Soyuz program.

But in recent times private companies like SpaceX and Boeing have bid to end the Russian monopoly on manned launches to the ISS, winning multibillion-dollar contracts with NASA.

U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has set an ambitious deadline to return astronauts to the moon by 2024.

The project — named Artemis — would be the first attempt to send humans to the lunar surface since the last Apollo landing in 1972.

Some experts doubt if the deadline is realistic, given budgetary constraints and delays in developing the next-generation rockets and equipment needed for the journey.

The International Space Station has been orbiting Earth at about 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,000 miles per hour) since 1998.