NEW: The spacecraft docks at 10:28 p.m. ET after flight of less than six hours
Up until now, it would take two days for crews to go from Earth to the space station
The spacecraft orbited Earth four times before docking, compared to the usual 16 orbits
Its three-member crew will remain on the space station through September
In six hours, a person might walk 18 or so miles. By car, it could be 350-plus miles. A commercial airplane might get as far as 3,400 miles.
A spaceship? In that much time, you could get from Earth to the International Space Station.
That’s what happened with a Soyuz TMA-08M spacecraft, which launched from Kazakhstan at 4:43 p.m. ET Thursday, or 2:43 a.m. Friday local time, with three soon-to-be space station crew members on board. NASA mission control declared “contact and capture confirmed” at 10:28 p.m. ET – four minutes earlier than planned – indicating the spacecraft had successfully docked.
This six-hour jaunt was exponentially faster than the normal two-day adventure that astronauts and cosmonauts typically take to get to the ISS. That’s because, while the live-in orbiter is a mere 250 miles from Earth, it’s always moving – so it’s not a simple matter of going from Point A to Point B.
That’s why it has traditionally taken so long to get there, with the spacecraft going round the Earth every 90 or so minutes, which works out to about 16 total before docking.
But this go around, the Soyuz only orbited four times before hooking up with the space station.
“We’re trying to cut that amount of time that they had to be in those close quarters,” NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries said, noting the spacecraft has a basic bathroom but little living space. “… They may be sharper now, if they’d have to take over the docking.”
The NASA spokesman explained that equipment and computer software upgrades, among other factors, helped to make Thursday’s historically fast flight possible. And it’s possible space officials might decide that the longer, old-fashioned way – allowing the crew to get its space legs over two days, however cramped they might be – is preferable, depending on how this mission goes, Humphries said.
This pioneering, fast-track crew was made up Pavel Vinogradov and Aleksandr Misurkin from Russia’s space agency, as well as NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy.
With their voyage complete – and once the space station’s hatches open for them, scheduled for soon after midnight – they’ll have plenty of time to get comfy: They are scheduled to remain on the orbiter for about six months before heading home.