A Russian spacecraft soared toward the International Space Station with three astronauts after a successful launch that contrasted with fiery failures by two for-profit U.S. operators.
Atop a pillar of flame in the nighttime sky, the Soyuz TMA 17M craft launched at 3:02 a.m. local time Thursday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the home for Russian manned missions. The crew -- drawn from the U.S., Russia and Japan -- is set to reach the orbiting lab after a flight of about five hours and 43 minutes, commentator Kyle Herring said on a NASA webcast.
The U.S. hasn’t had its own manned launches since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration retired the space shuttle in 2011. While NASA plans to reduce its reliance on the Soyuz program with commercial providers, the effort has been complicated by accidents with cargo-carrying rockets at Orbital ATK Inc. and billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
“The continued success of the Russian Soyuz is benefiting everyone flying to the ISS because of its reliability,” said Lance Erickson, program coordinator for commercial space operations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
NASA has awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing Co. to start ferrying astronauts into orbit by 2017. Those would be the first crew-hauling missions for the U.S. space program, following the use of commercial providers to loft satellites and freight.
The U.S. search for alternatives to Russian lift vehicles for manned flights is based on “lessons learned from single-sourcing anything important” and a desire to end a reliance on Vladimir Putin’s government rather than a concern over the Soyuz program, he said.
The three astronauts -- Kjell Lindgren from the U.S., Oleg Kononenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency and Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency -- will remain in space for five months.
NASA’s television feed of the launch showed the trio waving to the video camera while, from the ground, the bright-orange glow of the Soyuz engines dimmed and then disappeared as the spacecraft climbed through the skies of central Asia.
The astronauts will work with Commander Gennady Padalka of Roscosmos and flight engineers Scott Kelly of NASA and Mikhail Kornienko of Roscosmos on hundreds of experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science.
Another crew is scheduled to travel to the station Sept. 1. They will only stay for 10 days after delivering a new Soyuz rocket to the station so Kelly and Kornienko will be able to return in 2016. The Soyuz spacecraft can only remain docked at the station for about 180 days, so new vessels must be rotated in and out, NASA said.
The two failed U.S. missions to the station both involved resupply missions.
On June 28, a SpaceX’s Falcon 9 blew up after takeoff, possibly stalling NASA’s timetable for awarding the next round of space-cargo delivery contracts.
NASA previously postponed the awards in October, when an Orbital rocket exploded on a resupply mission. Orbital’s unmanned Antares supply rocket crashed shortly after launching from Virginia.
Adding to the setbacks, an unmanned Russian Progress 59 craft spun out of control in April and failed to make its way to the station. The spacecraft, carrying more than three tons of supplies, exploded abruptly in Earth’s atmosphere. Another Russian craft delivered goods to the station earlier this month.