The number of astronauts at the International Space Station has returned to the full count of six after a Soyuz capsule reached the orbital outpost after an enforced two-month delay.
Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, together with Japan’s Kimiya Yui and American Kjell Lindgren, arrived at the station on Wednesday night after a six-hour space flight that launched from Russia’s cosmodrome Baikonur in Kazakhstan.
The launch was delayed since May due to the fault of Russia’s workhorse Soyuz rocket that occurred during a resupply mission of the Progress cargo vehicle on 28 April. The cargo capsule with supplies for the ISS failed to separate properly from the launcher and was sent to a wrong trajectory. Ground-based engineers failed to regain control over the spacecraft, which burned in the Earth’s atmosphere nine days later.
All Soyuz launches were suspended for the duration of the investigation and only returned to flight on 3 July when a replacement re-supply mission was successfully sent to the space station.
Only two months after the loss of Progress, American private space transporter SpaceX lost its Dragon capsule in a post-launch explosion. The destruction of Dragon left three out of four space station cargo delivery systems out of service. In October last year, a rocket of SpaceX’s American rival Orbital Sciences exploded seconds after launch and hasn’t returned to flight since.
The fourth system capable of delivering supplies to the ISS is Japan’s HTV, scheduled for launch in August.
"It's certainly no fun to see several of the cargo vehicles undergo mishaps," Kjell Lindgren said at the pre-launch conference. "It underscores the difficulty of this industry and ... how unforgiving the space environment is."
Lindgren, Kononenko and Yui, or Expedition 44, have joined American Scott Kelly and Russian Mikhail Kornienko, two astronauts on a one-year mission, which will be longest anyone has ever stayed in space in one go. The remaining astronaut already aboard is the current commander Gennady Padalka of Roscosmos.
Expedition 44 crew members are expected to be the first to harvest and eat crops grown aboard the station, an important advance towards a possible interplanetary space travel.
Astronauts will be allowed to eat half of the second crop of lettuce in the Veggie experiment, freezing the other half for a return to Earth where scientists will analyse the plants and compare them to a control set grown at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center.