BAIKONUR, Khazakhstan – An engine snag has delayed the arrival of a Russian spacecraft carrying three astronauts to the International Space Station until Thursday, NASA said on Wednesday.
A rocket carrying Russians Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev and American Steve Swanson to the space station blasted off successfully early Wednesday from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The Soyuz booster rocket lifted off as scheduled at 3:17 a.m. local time Wednesday (2117 GMT Tuesday), lighting up the night skies over the steppe with a giant fiery tail. It entered a designated orbit about 10 minutes after the launch and was expected to reach the space station in six hours. All onboard systems were working flawlessly, and the crew was feeling fine.
But NASA said in a statement on its website that the arrival was delayed after a 24-second engine burn that was necessary to adjust the Soyuz spacecraft's orbiting path "did not occur as planned."
The crew is in good spirits and is in no danger, but will have to wait until Thursday for the Soyuz TMA-12M to arrive and dock at the space station, NASA said. The arrival is now scheduled for 7:58 EDT (2358 GMT) Thursday.
Russian spacecraft used to routinely travel two days to reach the orbiting laboratory before last year. Wednesday would have been only the fifth time that a crew would have taken the six-hour "fast-track" route to the station.
NASA said that Moscow flight control has yet to determine why the engine burn did not occur.
The three astronauts traveling in the Soyuz will be greeted by Japan's Koichi Wakata, NASA's Rick Mastracchio and Russia's Mikhail Tyurin, who have been at the station since November. Wakata is the first Japanese astronaut to lead the station. The new crew is scheduled to stay in orbit for six months.
The joint mission is taking place at a time when U.S.-Russian relations on Earth are at their lowest ebb in decades, but the U.S. and Russia haven't allowed their disagreements over Ukraine to get in the way of their cooperation in space.
Swanson is a veteran of two U.S. space shuttle missions, and Skvortsov spent six months at the space outpost in 2010. Artemyev is on his first flight to space.
So far, the tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine have been kept at bay. Since the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA has relied on Russian Soyuz spacecraft as the only means to ferry crew to the orbiting outpost and back.
The U.S. is paying Russia nearly $71 million per seat to fly astronauts to the space lab through 2017. It's doing that at a time when Washington has led calls for sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine following a hastily-arranged referendum. So far the sanctions have been limited and haven't directly targeted the wider Russian economy.
Earlier this month, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden repeatedly said the conflict in Ukraine would have no effect on what's going on in space between the U.S. and Russia, saying that the "partnership in space remains intact and normal."
He said there's a long history of countries cooperating in orbit, while clashing on terra firma, which is why he said some people have nominated the 16-nation International Space Station for the Nobel Peace Prize.
At the same time, Bolden said on his blog Tuesday that while NASA continues to cooperate successfully with Russia, it wants to quickly get its own capacity to launch crews. NASA is trying to speed up private American companies' efforts to launch crews into orbit, but it needs extra funding to do so.
"But even as the `space race' has evolved over the past 50 years from competition to collaboration with Russia, NASA is rightfully focused now more than ever on returning our astronauts to space aboard American rockets -- launched from U.S. soil -- as soon as possible," he said.
NASA spokesman David Weaver said "NASA is working aggressively to return human spaceflight launch to American soil, and end our sole reliance on Russia to get into space." He added that later this year the agency plans to select the American companies that will transport its astronauts to the space station beginning in 2017.