No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs

No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
In this image from video made available by NASA, International Space Station crew members welcome cosmonauts Ivan Vagner, center, Anatoly Ivanishin and astronaut Chris Cassidy, obscured, as they exit the Soyuz capsule docked to the station on Thursday, April 9, 2020. (NASA via AP)

Three astronauts flew to the International Space Station on Thursday, departing the virus-plagued planet with little fanfare and no family members at the launch site to bid them farewell.

NASA's Chris Cassidy and Russians Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner arrived at the orbiting lab in their Soyuz capsule six hours after blasting off from Kazakhstan. They joined two Americans and one Russian who will return to Earth in a week.

There was no social distancing 260 miles (420 kilometers) up: As they floated into the space station one by one, the new astronauts embraced the three already there. They had been in prelaunch quarantine for the past month.

The newest crew members will remain on board until October, keeping the outpost running until SpaceX launches a pair of NASA astronauts from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, as early as next month. It will be the first orbital launch of astronauts from the U.S. since NASA's ended in 2011.

Thursday's liftoff was low-key even by Russian standards, given the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. NASA televised the liftoff live as usual, but only a few Russia-based employees of the space agency were at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Cassidy's wife, Peggy, watched the launch from NASA's Mission Control in Houston. She returned home a few weeks ago, after saying goodbye to her husband at cosmonaut headquarters in Star City, Russia.

No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
In this image from video made available by NASA, newly-arrived International Space Station crew members, foreground from left, Chris Cassidy, Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, stand with outgoing crew members, background from left, Andrew Morgan, Oleg Skripochka, and Jessica Meir during a news conference on Thursday, April 9, 2020. (NASA via AP)

"No virus is stronger than the human desire to explore," tweeted NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "I'm grateful to the entire @NASA and @roscosmos teams for their dedication to making this launch a success."

On the eve of liftoff, the astronauts said they felt fantastic after being in strict quarantine. The sparse crowds mostly stayed a from the astronauts; even the Orthodox priest offering the customary blessing stood several feet away.

"Obviously, we'd love to have our families here with us, but it's what we understand we have to do to be safe," Cassidy said Wednesday. "The whole world is also impacted by the same crisis."

Added Ivanishin: "We've been completely isolated at this final stage of training."

There was another twist, besides coronavirus: Ivanishin and Vagner were assigned to the flight just two months ago, after one of the original Russian crewmen suffered an eye injury.

No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
In this handout photo released by Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy, left, Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin, centre, and Ivan Vagner, members of the main crew of the expedition to the International Space Station (ISS), walk prior the launch of Soyuz MS-16 space ship at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Thursday, April 9, 2020. (Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service via AP)

Because of the late crew swap, Ivanishin and Vagner had no clothes waiting for them at the . They took a few extra outfits with them on the Soyuz, with more due to arrive on the next Russian supply ship later this month.

Officials from NASA and the Russian Space Agency were among only a few to address the , protected behind a glass wall, before they departed for the launch pad. The room normally is packed with family, friends and space program types; on Thursday, the rows of seats were almost all empty. Journalists were among those kept away.

"It was a stunning launch and docking," NASA's Mission Control radioed from Houston after the crew arrived. "And while we wish we had everyone to see you off from Baikonur, we know your family and friends, and your NASA family, were watching the whole way and couldn't be more proud."

  • No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
    In this grab taken from video footage released by Roscosmos Space Agency, the Soyuz-2.1a rocket booster with Soyuz MS-16 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station, ISS, blasts off at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Thursday, April 9, 2020. The Russian rocket carries U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy, Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. (Roscosmos Space Agency via AP)
  • No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
    In this handout photo released by Roscosmos Russian cosmonauts Ivan Vagner, member of the main crew to the International Space Station (ISS), seen through glass as he attends a State Committee meeting at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. The new Soyuz mission to the International Space Station is scheduled on Thursday, April 9. (Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service via AP)
  • No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
    In this handout photo released by Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy, left, Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin, centre, and Ivan Vagner, members of the main crew of the expedition to the International Space Station (ISS), report to head or Russian space agency Dmitry Rogozin prior the launch of Soyuz MS-16 space ship at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Thursday, April 9, 2020. (Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service via AP)
  • No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
    In this grab taken from video footage released by Roscosmos Space Agency, the Soyuz-2.1a rocket booster with Soyuz MS-16 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station, ISS, blasts off at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Thursday, April 9, 2020. The Russian rocket carries U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy, Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. (Roscosmos Space Agency via AP)
  • No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
    In this grab taken from video footage released by Roscosmos Space Agency the Soyuz-2.1a rocket booster with Soyuz MS-16 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station, ISS, blasts off at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Thursday, April 9, 2020. The Russian rocket carries U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy, Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. (Roscosmos Space Agency via AP)
  • No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
    In this handout photo released by Roscosmos U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy, left, Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin, centre, and Ivan Vagner, members of the main crew to the International Space Station (ISS), attend a news conference at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. The new Soyuz mission to the International Space Station is scheduled on Thursday, April 9. (Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service via AP)
  • No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
    In this handout photo released by Roscosmos Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin, member of the main crew to the International Space Station (ISS), seen through glass as he attends a State Committee meeting at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. The new Soyuz mission to the International Space Station is scheduled on Thursday, April 9. (Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service via AP)
  • No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
    In this handout photo released by Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy, centre, Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin, bottom, and Ivan Vagner, members of the main crew of the expedition to the International Space Station (ISS), wave as they board to the Soyuz MS-16 space ship prior to the launch at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Thursday, April 9, 2020. (Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service via AP)
  • No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
    In this handout photo released by Roscosmos U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy, member of the main crew to the International Space Station (ISS), seen through glass as he attends a State Committee meeting at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. The new Soyuz mission to the International Space Station is scheduled on Thursday, April 9. (Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service via AP)
  • No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
    In this handout photo released by Roscosmos U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy, left, Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin, centre, and Ivan Vagner, members of the main crew to the International Space Station (ISS), pose during a news conference at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. The new Soyuz mission to the International Space Station is scheduled on Thursday, April 9. (Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service via AP)
  • No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
    In this handout photo released by Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service the Soyuz-2.1A rocket booster with Soyuz MS-16 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station, ISS, blasts off at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Thursday, April 9, 2020. The Russian rocket carries U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy, Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. (Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service via AP)
  • No social distancing in space: New crew greeted with hugs
    In this handout photo released by Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service the Soyuz-2.1A rocket booster with Soyuz MS-16 space ship carrying a new crew to the International Space Station, ISS, blasts off at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Thursday, April 9, 2020. The Russian rocket carries U.S. astronaut Chris Cassidy, Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. (Roscosmos Space Agency Press Service via AP)

"We're just really happy to get here," replied Cassidy, a Navy captain.

This is the third spaceflight for Cassidy and Ivanishin, and the first for Vagner.

Already on board—and due to return to Earth on April 17—are NASA's Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan, and Russian Oleg Skripochka.

The director of Roscosmos—Russia's agency—said earlier this week that nine employees have tested positive for coronavirus. Roscosmos controls a sprawling network of production plants and launch facilities, and has about 200,000 employees, said director Dmitry Rogozin, who attended Thursday's launch.


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