CAPE CANAVERAL – A Russian cosmonaut left the United States for the first time in 20 years on Wednesday, launching to the International Space Station alongside NASA and Japanese astronauts, despite tensions over the war in Ukraine.

“We are very happy to do this together,” said Anna Kikina, Russia’s only female cosmonaut, in English and Russian. “Thank you!”

She was among three first-timers on the flight, along with Marine Corps Col. Nicole Mann, the first Native American woman to orbit the world, and Navy Capt. Josh Casado. They were joined by Koichi Wakata of the Japan Space Agency, who is making his fifth space flight.

“Great!” Man said on the walkie-talkie. “It’s been a smooth ride uphill. You have three beginners who are very happy to be in space now.’

They are due to arrive at the space station on Thursday, 29 hours after liftoff at noon from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and will not return to Earth until March. They are replacing an American-Italian crew that arrived in April.

Their SpaceX flight was delayed due to Hurricane Ian, which devastated parts of the state last week.

“I hope that with this launch we can brighten up the skies over Florida a little bit for everyone,” Wakata said before the flight.

Kikina – the stock exchange of the Russian Space Agency on Frank Rubio of NASA, which launched to the space station two weeks ago from Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz rocket. Took off with two astronauts.

The space agencies agreed in the summer swap seats on their flights to ensure a continuous US and Russian presence aboard the 260-mile (420-kilometer) outpost. The barter was allowed even as global hostilities flared over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February. The next crew exchange is in the spring.

Shortly before the launch, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said that the main reason for the exchange of seats is safety – in the event of an emergency, the crew of one capsule will be forced to return home, there will still be an American and a Russian on board.

Meanwhile, Russia remains committed to the space station until at least 2024, Russian space official Sergei Krikalev assured reporters this week. Russia wants to build its own station in orbit at the end of this decade, “but we know it’s not going to happen very soon, so we’ll probably keep flying” with NASA until then, he said.

Starting with Krikalyov in 1994, NASA began delivering astronauts on its space shuttles, first to the Russian space station Mir and then to the young space station. The 2003 Columbia re-entry disaster put an end to that. But American astronauts continued to ride on Russian rockets for tens of millions of dollars per seat.

Kakina is only the fifth Russian woman to fly off the planet. She said she was surprised to be chosen to exchange places after facing “many trials and obstacles” during her ten years of training. “But I did it. Maybe I was lucky. I am strong,” she said.

Mann, a Wailacki member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in California, brought her mother’s dream catcher, a small traditional webbed hoop believed to offer protection. Retired NASA astronaut John Herrington of the Chickasaw Nation became the first Native American in space in 2002.

“I’m very proud to represent Native Americans and my heritage,” Mann said before the flight, adding that each member of her crew has a unique background. “It’s important to celebrate our diversity and realize how important it is when we collaborate and come together, what incredible achievements we can achieve.”

As for the war in Ukraine, Mann said all four put politics and personal beliefs aside, “and it’s really cool how the shared mission of the space station just instantly brings us together.”

Casada added: “We have an opportunity to be an example to the community of how to work together, live together and explore together.”

Since 2020, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched eight crews: six for NASA and two private groups. Boeing, another NASA contracted taxi service, plans to make its first astronaut flight early next year r, after delays to fix software and other problems encountered during test flights.

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