'Instantly unites us': Russian launches to space from US, 1st time in 20 years, amid tensions over Ukraine

Four astronauts rocketed toward the International Space Station from a SpaceX ship Wednesday, including the first Russian to launch from the U.S. in 20 years, alongside NASA and Japanese astronauts despite tensions over the war in Ukraine.

The 230-foot Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at noon, taking NASA's Josh Cassada and Nicole Mann, Japan's Koichi Wakata, and Russia's Anna Kikina to orbit in a Crew Dragon capsule. The mission known as Crew-5 is SpaceX's sixth crewed flight under contract from NASA and eighth overall when including private spaceflights.

“We’re so glad to do it together," said Kikina, Russia’s lone female cosmonaut and the fifth Russian woman to rocket off the planet, offering thanks in both English and Russian. “Spasibo!”

She said she was surprised to be selected after encountering “many tests and obstacles” during her decade of training. “But I did it. I’m lucky maybe. I’m strong,” she said.

The members of NASA SpaceX Crew-5 (from left) Anna Kikina, Josh Cassada, Nicole Mann and Koichi Wakata, head for the launch pad for their trip to the International Space Station Wednesday, October 5, 2022. Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK
The members of NASA SpaceX Crew-5 (from left) Anna Kikina, Josh Cassada, Nicole Mann and Koichi Wakata, head for the launch pad for their trip to the International Space Station Wednesday, October 5, 2022. Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK

The war in Ukraine has strained the relationship between Russia and the U.S. in space, but the crew's commander, Mann, said all four astronauts put politics and personal beliefs aside.

“It’s really cool how the common mission of the space station just instantly unites us,” she said.

A member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in California, Mann is the first Native American woman to orbit the world. Retired NASA astronaut John Herrington of the Chickasaw Nation became the first Native American in space in 2002.

SpaceX Crew-5 Mission Specialist Anna Kikina from Roscosmos poses for a portrait in her Crew Dragon flight suit at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
SpaceX Crew-5 Mission Specialist Anna Kikina from Roscosmos poses for a portrait in her Crew Dragon flight suit at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

The launch was a "smooth ride," Mann said once Crew Dragon was in a stable orbit about 15 minutes after liftoff.

"You've got three rookies that are pretty happy to be floating in space right now and one veteran astronaut happy to be back in space as well," she said.

The crew is due to arrive at the space station Thursday, with the 29-hour flight measuring to be one of the Crew Dragon's longer voyages to date. Once on board, they will join seven others: four NASA and European Space Agency astronauts and three Russian cosmonauts.

The flight had been delayed by Hurricane Ian, which devastated parts of the state last week.

More: Hurricane Ian: Kennedy Space Center, Space Force bases OK

More: NASA set to launch Russian cosmonaut for first time on Crew Dragon

Crew-5 marked the first time a Russian cosmonaut flew on an American-made vehicle since the space shuttle program. NASA agreed to swap assignments with one of its crew, leading to Astronaut Frank Rubio's launch to the ISS on a Soyuz rocket in late September. Kikina's flight on Crew Dragon completes the swap.

Crew-5 is part of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which was established to replace the space shuttle's ability to take crews to the ISS. The U.S. went without crewed spaceflight access for nearly a decade – relying on Russian Soyuz spacecraft in between – until May 2020 when SpaceX launched the Demo-2 mission.

Since then, SpaceX has launched six crews under that multibillion-dollar contract with NASA.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Contact Emre Kelly at aekelly@floridatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: SpaceX, NASA launch from Florida with first Russian in 20 years