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An anti-satellite weapon smashed a Russian orbiter into at least 1,500 pieces, forming a belt of debris hurtling around the Earth at speeds up to 17,000 miles an hour. It forced ground control to awaken the sleeping crew of the International Space Station and ask them to close hatches and scramble into docked spacecraft for safety. (NASA)

Three Russian cosmonauts lifted off on a Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station Friday, a sign that despite the threats coming from the head of the Russian space agency the country remains committed to the partnership with the United States that has lasted more than two decades.

At 11:55 a.m. Eastern time, the three Russians, Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergey Korsakov lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. They are expected to orbit Earth twice and then dock with the station at approximately 3:05 p.m. Eastern time.

“Everything is fine on board, and the group is doing great,” a Russian ground controller said on NASA television through an interpreter shortly after liftoff.

The launch comes as tensions continue to mount between the United States and Russia over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The United States has imposed heavy sanctions on Russia, and President Joe Biden has labeled Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal.” Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has said that since Russia is responsible for boosting the station, it could force it to come crashing down and has threatened to consider dissolving the partnership.

NASA leaders have continually said that the United States remains committed to the partnership and that space remains an area where the two countries can cooperate.

Russian’s bloody invasion of Ukraine “hasn’t thrown it into question at all,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on CNBC Friday. “The cosmonauts and the astronauts are getting along as usual.”

He said the Soyuz launch Friday demonstrates “that the Russians are still committed to the International Space Station.”

On March 30, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who has set the longest single spaceflight record for an American, is scheduled to fly back to Earth on a Russian spacecraft alongside two cosmonauts.


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