The Soyuz rocket and spacecraft launched at 3:31 a.m. PST from Kazakhstan with three people on board: Lt. Col. Anne McClain, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko.
The first Russian rocket to fly with people aboard since a harrowing failure two months ago blasted off Monday morning in a successful return to flight, carrying a Spokane astronaut.
Lt. Col. Anne McClain was among the crew heading to the International Space Station (ISS) as students at her alma mater, Gonzaga Prep, watched, The Spokesman-Review reported.
“It’s really inspiring to see someone who dreamed of becoming an astronaut become one,” said 16-year-old Gonzaga Prep junior Rigee Olavides, one of many students crammed into a large science classroom Monday morning, watching a live video feed from NASA showing McClain and two other astronauts navigate a Soyuz spacecraft toward an ISS docking bay.
The Soyuz rocket and spacecraft launched at 3:31 a.m. PST from Kazakhstan with three people on board: McClain, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko.
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Six hours later, the spacecraft reached the station and docked with it. The crew is expected to stay on the station until June.
In October, a Soyuz rocket malfunctioned when one of its side boosters failed to separate properly and slammed into the rocket. That triggered an automatic abort of the spacecraft, carrying the two-member crew on a wild ride nearly to the edge of space before they fell safely back to the ground.
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has since said the failure was caused by a “deformed sensor” damaged during the rocket’s assembly. Instead of delaying the next flight with crews on board, the agency actually moved it up — a decision that NASA approved.
In a recent interview, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Roscosmos has been “very transparent” about the investigation into the malfunction.
“They have shared with us all the data we need to be comfortable and confident that we understand the problem and that it has been resolved,” he said.
NASA has been forced to rely on Russia for transportation to the space station since the shuttle retired in 2011. While there are several systems capable of flying cargo and supplies to the orbiting laboratory, the Soyuz is the only vehicle able to fly people there.
However, Russia stands to lose its monopoly on sending people to the ISS in the coming years with the arrival of SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner crew capsules.
After the failure, officials in the United States and Russia said they felt a sense of urgency to get it back up and running.
The malfunction did little to lessen McClain’s resolve. “I would have gotten on the Soyuz the next day,” she said recently.
She said she was confident that Roscosmos had fixed the problem by asking “the three important questions: What happened? Why did it happen? And how do we ensure it doesn’t happen again? Nobody was going to give the green light until those three questions were answered.”
McClain, an Army lieutenant colonel and helicopter pilot, was chosen to be an astronaut by NASA in 2013. This was the first time she has been picked for a mission to space.
When she was 3 years old, she told her mother, “I want to be an astronaut,” she recalled in an Army video. “She never told me that I couldn’t.” She graduated from Gonzaga Prep in 1997.
On Monday, NASA also announced that the astronauts on the aborted mission in October, NASA’s Tyler N. “Nick” Hague and Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos, were scheduled to fly again Feb. 28.
Just before the craft was set to dock Monday, teachers were urged to allow their students to watch history in the making for an alum.
One name that came up often between teachers and students was Shari Manikowski, a math teacher who taught and coached McClain. The two stayed connected throughout the years, even as McClain’s career took her from Gonzaga University to West Point and eventually, NASA.
Manikowski was invited to watch the launch and docking from Houston, where she spent Monday morning.
McClain texted Manikowski on the way to the launch, “saying thank you for being my teacher,” Gonzaga Prep President Michael Dougherty told students. “Nothing could be cooler.”