BAIKONUR: Two astronauts, a cosmonaut, and a ball set to be used in the forthcoming football World Cup in Russia blasted off on Wednesday for a two-day flight to the International Space Station.
NASA’s Drew Feustel and Richard Arnold lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for a five-month mission in a Soyuz MS-08 under the command of Russian colleague Oleg Artemyev at the expected time of 11.44pm local time.
All three crew members have been in space before although NASA duo Feustel, 52, and Arnold, 54, have never served on a long-duration spaceflight and have just 40 days in orbit between them.
Artemyev, who is commanding a Soyuz spacecraft for the first time, spent 169 days at the International Space Station during his previous mission in 2014.
In the build-up to the launch, Russian media coverage focused on Artemyev taking to the orbital laboratory a football that is expected to kick off the 2018 World Cup the country is hosting this summer.
“We are taking a ball with us,” Artemyev told a pre-flight press conference on Tuesday.
“Possibly the one that will be used in the first game,” said the 47-year-old, who attended school in the steppe town right next to the cosmodrome in central Kazakhstan.
His colleague from the Russian space agency Anton Shkaplerov is expected to take the ball back down to earth less than two weeks before the national team take on Saudi Arabia in the tournament opener on June 14.
The three men will join Expedition 55 commander Shkaplerov NASA’s Scott Tingle and Norishige Kanai of the Japanese space agency at the orbital lab on Friday.
The ISS laboratory, a rare example of American and Russian cooperation, has been orbiting Earth at about 28,000 kilometres per hour since 1998.