On October 14, 2020, Russia's Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft set a new speed record for transporting crew members to the International Space Station (ISS) in just 3 hours and 3 minutes. NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, blasted off from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome at 1:45 AM EDT and safely docked at the ISS at 4:48 AM EDT. The monumental journey was accomplished using a fast-track, two-orbit flight path to the ISS.
The 183-minute journey is particularly remarkable given that just a few years ago, it took the Soyuz spacecraft as long as two days to meet up with the International Space Station. That's because the rocket— which enters space in less than 10 minutes after being launched — is initially on an orbital path that is slightly lower than that of the space station. The spacecraft is boosted into the ISS's orbit with the help of a series of carefully-orchestrated thruster burns. Since these were spread out over as many as 34 orbital laps, it took the capsule a few days to meet up with the ISS, which travels at a rapid pace of 17,500 miles per hour.
However, in 2013, the Soyuz crew managed to complete the tricky maneuvers in four orbits, effectively cutting the travel time to the space station to six hours. Since then, Russia has successfully used an even faster, two-orbit rendezvous method with its Progress cargo resupply spacecraft — which is similar to the Soyuz aircraft — on five missions. The October 14, 2020, flight, which marked the first time a Soyuz crew has taken the short cut to the ISS, was 45 minutes faster than the fastest Progress mission, which arrived at the space station 3 hours and 48 minutes after liftoff, in July 2018.
The mission was significant for other reasons as well. It was the last time NASA paid for an American astronaut to fly with the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos. Going forward, the US space agency will use SpaceX's Crew Dragon to transport American researchers to and from the orbiting science laboratory. The launch also came just two and a half weeks before the 20th anniversary of the arrival of the space station's first crew, who began their stay at the orbital complex on November 2, 2000.
"The 20-year anniversary of a continuous human presence in space is going to be quite an event and I think all three of us look forward to being there during that time," said Rubins, who is on her 2nd ISS mission. "I think the International Space Station is one of the most incredible engineering achievements in human history and certainly it ranks very high on spaceflight achievements. It is quite a marvel to see such a giant machine that was built entirely by humans and flown off the surface of Earth still persists in space 20 years later."
In another fun coincidence, October 14, 2020, also happened to be Rubins' 42nd birthday. In response to the congratulatory messages from the Roscosmos mission control team, the astronaut said, "Thank you so much. It's been the best birthday I ever had."
The incoming crew will spend six months working on the orbiting lab as members of Expedition 64. They will work alongside NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, who arrived at the space station in April.
Resources: Space.com, Businessinsider.com,ndtv.com