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Record-setting astronaut, cosmonauts lift off on Russia's last Soyuz TMA-M

Soyuz TMA-20M launches for the International Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on March 18, 2016. (NASA TV)
Mar. 18, 2016

— An American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts lifted off to the International Space Station on Friday (March 18), flying aboard the last of Russia's Soyuz TMA-M series spacecraft.

Jeff Williams of NASA, together with Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos launched on board Soyuz TMA-20M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:26 p.m. EDT (2126 GMT or 3:26 a.m. local time March 19). Embarking from "Gagarin's Start," the same pad used to launch the world's first human into space in April 1961, the crew's Soyuz-FG rocket was decorated with the image of Yuri Gagarin to commemorate the flight's anniversary.

Reaching orbit nine minutes after their launch, a small pink owl began to float above the crewmates' heads.

"This is a soft toy," Ovchinin, the commander of the Soyuz TMA-20M flight, said of his crew's zero-g indicator in a pre-flight press briefing. "My daughter loves everything that is connected with owls. This is one of the smallest owls from her collection."

Following a four-orbit, six-hour rendezvous with the space station, the Soyuz is scheduled to dock at Russia's Poisk module at 11:11 p.m. EDT (0311 GMT March 19). The link-up will occur two days after the 50th anniversary of the first docking between two spacecraft in orbit.

"It was a very significant milestone," said Williams of the Gemini 8 docking. "The difference between the Agena that they docked with and the International Space Station is a great illustration of how far we've come."

Update: TMA-20M docked to the station at 11:09 p.m. EDT (0309 GMT) as the two vehicles were 253 miles above the Earth, orbiting over the western coast of Peru.

Ovchinin, Skripochka and Williams will be greeted aboard the station by Expedition 47 commander Yuri Malenchenko of Roscosmos, NASA astronaut Tim Kopra and Tim Peake of the European Space Agency (ESA), who have been on board the laboratory since December.

TMA-20M crewmates Jeff Williams (left), Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka pose with a 55 year anniversary banner depicting Yuri Gagarin, the first human to go to space. (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

Ovchinin, Skripochka and Williams are scheduled to spend six months on the space station, returning to Earth in early September. Malenchenko, Kopra and Peake will return to the ground in June, at which point Williams will be handed over command of Expedition 48.

Soyuz MS-01, the first of a new model of Russia's crewed spacecraft, will launch in June, bringing Anatoli Ivanishin of Roscosmos, Kate Rubins with NASA and Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to serve on the Expedition 48 crew.

Over the six months they are in orbit, Ovchinin, Skripochka and Williams will continue operating the several hundred experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical and Earth science on the station. They are expected to install the first commercial 3D printer to be used in orbit and oversee the deployment of a prototype "inflatable" room for the station, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM.

Williams, who is the first American to launch on three long-duration expeditions aboard the space station, will surpass Scott Kelly's recently-established record for the most time spent in space by a U.S. astronaut. Over the course of his now four spaceflights, Williams will log more than 534 days — two weeks more than Kelly — by the time he lands.

The Soyuz TMA-20M mission patch. Click on the image to see all of the Soyuz TMA-M emblems from 2010 to 2016. (collectSPACE)

"It is a great honor for me to go back to the space station," Williams said a day before launch. "This time I get a sense of the significance of the history of the accomplishment we call the International Space Station."

Skripochka, making his second flight to the space station, also set a record, becoming the first person in history to fly on both the first and last missions of a type of spacecraft. His first flight in 2010 was aboard Soyuz TMA-01M.

Soyuz TMA-20M is Ovchinin's first spaceflight. Selected as a cosmonaut in 2006, he previously was a pilot instructor in the Russian Air Force.

TMA-20M is Russia's 46th Soyuz to fly to the International Space Station and the 129th to launch since the first flight of the Soyuz-class of spacecraft in 1967. It is the 20th and final Soyuz TMA-M.

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