Soyuz flight honoring Gagarin takes off for the ISS

Almaty, Kazakhstan: A three-person crew launched into space in a capsule Friday,  commemorating the 60th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin who was the first person in space.

The Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft in which the trio launched has been named after the legendary cosmonaut, and a portrait of Gagarin has been applied to its exterior.

Roscosmos (Russian state space agency) cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov, as well as NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, took off from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 0742 GMT, according to NASA TV video, with docking scheduled for 1107 GMT.

Reminders of Gagarin's achievement could be found everywhere at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where Novitsky, Dubrov, and Vande Hei were preparing for their half-year mission aboard the orbital lab. 

Gagarin was also mentioned several times during Thursday's traditional pre-flight press conference when the crew was asked how they intended to commemorate Monday's anniversary once in orbit.

We'll celebrate it together, Dubrov, 43, who is going to space for the first time, said. And we'll put in a lot of effort!

Every year on April 12, the anniversary of Gagarin's pioneering flight is observed as Cosmonautics Day in Russia.

Friday's launch was from a separate launchpad than Gagarin's one and only flight, which lasted 108 minutes in orbit.

The Gagarin launchpad, which was last used in 2019, is undergoing improvements in preparation for a new generation of Soyuz rockets and is scheduled to reopen in 2023.

Gagarin's plan was a propaganda success for the Soviet Union, as well as a significant victory in the space race with the West, which became one of the Cold War's most thrilling subplots.

Difficult times for the space program 

However, the anniversary comes at a tough time for Russia's space industry, which has experienced a number of setbacks in recent years, including industry corruption scandals and an aborted take-off that scuttled a manned mission in 2018.

Perhaps most notably, Roscosmos and Baikonur lost their monopoly on manned ISS launches last year when Space X's reusable rockets transported NASA astronauts to the station from American soil.

Roscosmos is facing financial difficulties as a result of the advent of commercial competitors; NASA has paid the company tens of millions of dollars per seat for astronauts sent to the ISS.

Russian space officials continue to promote new projects, such as returning samples from Venus and developing a rocket capable of making 100 round trips to space.

Nonetheless, the space budget has been declining year after year as President Vladimir Putin prioritizes increased military spending.

In the midst of growing geopolitical tensions, space has proved to be a rare field of cooperation between Russia and the West.

However, the ISS initiative, which started in 2000, is scheduled to be completed by the end of this decade.

Despite talk of NASA and Roscosmos splitting up as the space station nears its end, crews have emphasized the importance of good ties for continued development.

"When we first started we were competing with each other and that was one of the reasons we were so successful at the beginning of human space flight," said Vande Hei, who poked fun at the haircut he gave himself during quarantine ahead of his second mission aboard the ISS.

"As time went on we realised we could achieve a bit more working together... I hope that will continue into the future."

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