Soyuz MS-18 launch
A Soyuz rocket with the Soyuz Ms-18 spacecraft lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome April 9. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — A Soyuz spacecraft carrying two Russian cosmonauts and one American astronaut arrived at the International Space Station April 9, a few hours after its launch from Kazakhstan.

A Soyuz-2.1a rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 3:42 a.m. Eastern, placing the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft into orbit. That spacecraft docked with the station’s Rassvet module at 7:05 a.m. Eastern after a two-orbit approach to the station.

The Soyuz brought to the station NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov. They will remain on the station through at least October as part of the Expedition 65 crew.

Novitsky, commander of the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft, will return to Earth in October on that spacecraft. However, both Dubrov and Vande Hei may remain on the station for up to a year if Roscosmos decides to fly spaceflight participants on the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft in October. Those spaceflight participants — likely a director and actress for a movie filmed on the station — would launch on Soyuz MS-19 but return with Novitsky on MS-18 after about a week on the station.

Vande Hei, in a call with reporters March 15, acknowledged the uncertainty of how long he will be on the station. “Honestly, for me it’s just an opportunity for a new life experience. I’ve never been in space longer than six months,” he said, referring to his six-month stay on the station in 2017–2018. “I’m really enthusiastic about it.”

Vande Hei was formally added to Soyuz MS-18 only a month before the launch, after the agency finalized an agreement involving Roscosmos and commercial spaceflight company Axiom Space to acquire the seat. Roscosmos sold the seat to Axiom, which then transferred it to NASA in exchange for a seat on a future commercial crew mission, likely in 2023.

NASA, which in the past purchased seats directly from Roscosmos, took this unusual approach as a stopgap as it works on an agreement with Roscosmos for exchanging seats directly between the two agencies. Under that plan, NASA astronauts would continue to fly on Soyuz spacecraft, while Russian cosmonauts would fly on commercial crew vehicles, with no exchange of funds between the agencies. Such “mixed crews” ensure there will always be both NASA and Roscosmos personnel on the station in the event either the Soyuz or commercial crew spacecraft are grounded for an extended period.

That agreement has not been completed. However, NASA has yet to fill the fourth seat on the Crew-3 commercial crew mission, a Crew Dragon spacecraft scheduled to launch no earlier than Oct. 23. NASA astronauts Raja Chari and Tom Marshburn and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer have already been assigned to that flight.

Vande Hei said he was not involved in the negotiations to secure his seat on the Soyuz. However, he was training alongside Novitsky and Dubrov, as well as Sergei Korsakov, a Russian cosmonaut originally assigned to the mission. Korsakov was bumped from the mission to give his seat to Vande Hei.

Vande Hei noted that, at one point, there were two versions of the Soyuz MS-18 mission patch created by Roscosmos, one with his name and the other with Korsakov. In a show of camaraderie, Vande Hei said he wore the version of the patch with Korsakov’s name while Korsakov wore the patch with Vande Hei’s name. “I will always consider him to be a part of our team,” he said of Korsakov.

With the arrival of Soyuz MS-18, the station’s crew temporarily increases to 10 people. NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov will return to Earth April 17 on the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft.

The next commercial crew mission, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Crew-2, remains scheduled for launch April 22. It will transport NASA’s Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, ESA’s Thomas Pesquet and Akihiko Hoshide of the Japanese space agency JAXA to the station. The Crew-1 mission, with NASA’s Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi will return to Earth April 28.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...