By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - A two-man U.S.-Russian crew floated into the International Space Station on Thursday, hours after blasting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a NASA TV broadcast showed.
A Russian Soyuz capsule carrying U.S. astronaut Jack Fischer, 43, and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, 58, lifted off at 1:13 p.m. local time/3:13 a.m. EDT (0713 GMT) with a rare empty third seat. Russia is scaling back space station staffing until its long-delayed science laboratory is flown to the orbiting outpost next year.
Fischer and Yurchikhin reached the $100 billion space station, which orbits about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth on schedule at 9:18 a.m. EDT (1318 GMT). About two hours later, hatches between the Soyuz capsule and station opened.
Fischer, on his first space voyage, and Yurchikhin floated into the waiting arms of station commander Peggy Whitson and her crew. Their first order of business was a congratulatory phone call from family and friends at the Russian mission control center outside of Moscow.
"It’s so beautiful," Fischer told his wife, describing the experience as "a burrito of awesomeness smothered in awesome sauce."
Fischer also had some comforting words for his mother.
"Mom, it's like me being in Texas, depending on where we are going around the Earth, I’ll be just as close," he said. "I can still call you. So no need to miss me.”
Prior to launch, the rookie flier said he thought his biggest challenge would be learning how to use the station's zero-gravity toilet, a difficult task that relies on suction.
Fisher, with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is sharing the station with two seasoned veterans, a Russian cosmonaut on his second flight and a first-time French flier.
Soyuz crewmate Yurchikhin has made four previous space flights. Commander Whitson, 57, in the midst of her third long-duration mission, is due on Monday to beat the 534-day record for cumulative time spent in space by a U.S. astronaut.
She is expected to receive a congratulatory phone call on Monday from U.S. President Donald Trump, NASA said on Wednesday.
Whitson, who flew to the station in November along with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, will remain aboard with Fischer and Yurchikhin until September.
(Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Alistair Bell)