The astronauts had been placed in quarantine since mid-March to prevent them from contracting the new coronavirus.
There is at least one place where the new coronavirus does not exist … but it is not on earth. Two cosmonauts and an astronaut flew to the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday, leaving behind a blue planet plagued by the coronavirus pandemic. The American Chris Cassidy and the Russians Anatoli Ivanichine and Ivan Vagner took off as agreed at 10.05 am French time from the Russian cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
They must reach the orbital station at 4:15 p.m. after a flight of about six hours. “The Soyuz MS-16 has successfully launched into orbit,” Russian space agency Roskosmos said on Twitter. Just before launching into orbit, the crew said they “felt good” according to Nasa television, which broadcast the launch.
Videoconference without audience
Although the three-month mission of the three men on board the ISS was maintained despite the Covid-19, several rituals were however canceled to limit the risks of spreading the disease. Their families and journalists were therefore not invited to the traditional press conference before departure on Wednesday. The latter took place by videoconference, without audience, in a rather dull atmosphere.
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“Instead of talking to the cameras, we would be talking to people right now,” said Chris Cassidy, referring to these exchanges, which usually take place in a good mood. The 50-year-old astronaut, who leaves for the third time, admitted that the crew was “affected” by this lack of human contact: “But we understand that the whole world is also affected by the same crisis”. Two other cosmonauts were originally scheduled to leave, but one of them, Nikolai Tikhonov, was injured in February. It was therefore the reserve crew, made up of Anatoli Ivanichine and Ivan Vagner, who took off.
As before each space mission, the three men and their liners had been placed in quarantine, which started earlier to prevent them from contracting the new coronavirus. As of March 12, the crew was confined to the training center of the City of Stars, near Moscow, and had to ignore the visit to the tomb of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, at the foot of the Kremlin. At the same time, cases of coronavirus were beginning to be reported in the capital, which has become the main focus of the epidemic in Russia.
Thursday’s launch was the first of a Soyuz-2.1a rocket, Roskosmos having stopped the operation of the old Soyuz-FG last year. This new model, used for unmanned launches since 2004, is based on digital and not analog controls. The three men will join aboard the orbital laboratory Oleg Skripotchka, Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir, who are scheduled to return to Earth on April 17.
Tips for keeping in containment
The ISS usually accommodates six people, sometimes more, and has a living volume of 388 cubic meters, more than a six-bedroom house, according to NASA. These conditions may seem enviable to the billions of Earthlings currently experiencing containment to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Several space veterans have in recent weeks shared their advice for good containment. In an article for the New york times, Scott Kelly of Nasa said that what he missed most during his almost one year mission in space was nature: “the green, the smell of the cool earth and the warm feeling of the sun on my face”.
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Recommending that those who can get some fresh air, he also felt that there was nothing wrong with spending more time in front of the screens during confinement. During his time aboard the ISS, between 2015 and 2016, the astronaut, for example, admitted having engulfed the Game of Thrones series twice and frequently watched films with his colleagues.
Cosmonaut Sergei Riazanski, two missions to his credit, has become the face of a 10-week sporting challenge supported by Roskosmos. Its participants will have to broadcast videos of themselves doing physical exercises at home, like a spaceman on a mission.