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New Soyuz crew blasts off with Olympic torch

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Nov 7, 2013, 8:00 UTC

Sen—The latest crew destined for the International Space Station blasted off early today from the Baikonur cosmodrome with a special item on board their Soyuz - the Olympic torch.

Their Soyuz TMA-11M soared like a flaming torch itself from the launchpad in Kazakhstan at 05.14 UT to begin a flight lasting a little over six hours to the ISS.

Astronauts Richard Mastracchio, Koichi Wakata and Mikhail Tyurin will spend five and a half months on the orbiting outpost as part of Expeditions 38 and 39.

Update: The Soyuz mated with the Rassvet docking compartment at 10:27 UT and the Soyuz and ISS hatches were opened at 12:44 UT when the new crew were greeted by the six existing station crew members.

Though the torch has been in space before, aboard the space shuttle Atlantis in 1996, there will be a first this time when it is taken on a space walk as part of the build-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

It will not be lit on any stage of its space adventure for safety reasons apart from the fact that it would use up valuable oxygen. The EVA will be carried out by current ISS residents, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy.

The arrival of the three new astronauts, aboard Soyuz TMA-11M, who also brought an Olympic polar bear mascot, will briefly boost the number of humans aboard the space station to nine. On Monday, Russian Fyodor Yurchikhin, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency will return to Earth bringing the torch back with them.

Replay of today's Soyuz launch from Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA

The other astronaut on board is Michael Hopkins who arrived with Kotov and Ryazanskiy to began their own mission on 25 September.

NASA Flight Engineer Richard Mastracchio, 53, from Waterbury, Connecticut, is a veteran of three spaceflights. He flew as a Mission Specialist on STS-106, Atlantis, in 2000, STS-118, Endeavour, in 2007 and STS-131, Discovery, in 2010 and has logged nearly 40 days in space, including six spacewalks totalling 38 hours and 30 minutes.

Koichi Wakata, 50, from Saitama, Japan, who will take command of the ISS during his stay, has already flown into space three times. He was the first Japanese Mission Specialist on STS-72, Endeavour, in January 1996. In October 2000, he became the first Japanese astronaut to help build the ISS on mission STS-92, Discovery.

In 2009, he became the first ISS resident crew member from Japan, arriving aboard STS-119, Discovery, and returning to Earth on STS-127, Endeavour. While in orbit, he also became the first Japanese astronaut to fly aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. Dr Wakata has logged a total of 159 days, 10 hours, 46 minutes and 5 seconds in space.

Expedition 38 Crew

Space station newcomers Koichi Wakata, Mikhail Tyurin and Rick Mastracchio. Credit: Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center

In February 2011, he was chosen to be a Flight Engineer on ISS Expedition 38 and to be Commander of Expedition 39. He will be the first Japanese astronaut to command the ISS.

Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, 53, from Kolomna, near Moscow, Tyurin, has previously made two flights into space to stay abord the ISS. He visited for a total of 125 days in 2001, arriving aboard STS-105, Discovery, and leaving on STS-108, Endeavour.

Tyurin was the Commander of Soyuz-13 when it launched in 2006 and served as Flight Engineer on the ISS, carrying out five spacewalks during 215 days in space.