A crew leaves for space, 60 years after Gagarin

Two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut are due to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday April 9 during a mission honoring the 60th anniversary of the sending of the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin. Their Soyuz MS-18, which is due to take off at 0742 GMT from the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, was named after the legendary Soviet cosmonaut, a few days before the celebrations to mark his flight on April 12, 1961. His profile will be displayed. also in blue and white on the top of the launcher.

Oleg Novitsky and Piotr Doubrov, of the Russian agency Roscosmos, and Mark Vande Hei, of NASA, are leaving for a six-month stay on the ISS. During the traditional pre-departure press conference, they naturally confirmed that they would celebrate, on April 12, the feat of their illustrious predecessor. “We will celebrate it together”, noted Piotr Doubrov, 43, for whom this will be the first space mission. “And we will work hard!” On Friday, the three men will take off from Baikonur, like Gagarin, but from a different firing point from his. The latter is being modified, at least until 2023, to be able to accommodate the new generation of Soyuz rockets.

Every year, the anniversary of Gagarin’s flight is celebrated with immense devotion and pride all over Russia, where flowers are laid at the foot of the many monuments to his glory. Gagarin’s mission, lasting 108 minutes, was a great victory for the USSR in the space race between it and the United States. The cosmonaut, on his return to Earth, was logically taken advantage of by Soviet propaganda until his tragic death in a plane crash in troubled circumstances in 1968.

Difficulties of the Russian space sector

The celebrations of Gagarin’s mission, however, do not hide the difficulties of the Russian space sector. Although benefiting from a great experience and reliable equipment, like the legendary Soyuz, dating from the Soviet period, Russia suffers from difficulties in innovating, has suffered several technical setbacks during recent missions, as well as problems of financing and corruption. Last year, it also lost the monopoly of flights to the ISS, competing with SpaceX, the company of Elon Musk. A new reality that could mean a big shortfall for Roscosmos, which until then had billed NASA several million dollars for each place to the ISS. Space X’s next mission to the ISS will take off on April 22 from Florida, with Frenchman Thomas Pesquet on board.

The boss of the Russian agency still boasts of big plans, ranging from the construction of a lunar station with China, to the construction of a new ultramodern vessel. But the means are lacking … Year after year, the resources of Roscosmos are cut down in particular for the benefit of military projects, a priority for the Kremlin. Russian-American tensions have also weakened space cooperation, one of the rare sectors of mutual aid preserved between the two geopolitical enemies. The ISS project, launched in 2000, must for its part come to an end before 2030. And no other major project seems to be emerging to maintain equivalent international cooperation.

The crews, on the other hand, remain the best promoters of the need to help each other to progress. “We were in competition at the beginning of human space flights, and this is one of the reasons that explain our success”, said astronaut Mark Vande Hei on Thursday. “Then the time went by and we realized that we could do a lot more together. I hope this will continue ”, he added.

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