Colorado native heads to International Space Station after successful launch

DENVER — Astronaut and Colorado native Steve Swanson left Earth for a 6-month mission to the International Space Station on Tuesday.

Swanson launched from a Soyuz spacecraft with two Russian cosmonauts, Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev.  The night-time launch at 3:17 p.m. MDT lit up the skies over the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Swanson, who grew up in Steamboat and earned his bachelor of science degree in physics engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder, is making his third trip to the ISS.

The Soyuz was on an expedited schedule to dock with the space station six hours after launch. However, a problem with one of the engine burns required flight managers to revert to the standard two-day flight to the ISS.

Docking is scheduled for 5:58 p.m. MDT Thursday.

Swanson will assume the role of flight engineer for Expedition 39.  When the previous crew departs in a few weeks, he will become the commander of Expedition 40 — a 6-month mission.

Earlier this month Swanson told Good Day Colorado that the mission includes about 170 different experiments. “We will also get to do some space walks,” he said.

Swanson is one of 20 U.S. astronauts with ties to CU.

LINK: See space station on Instagram

‘Reluctant co-dependency’

On Earth, the United States may be trading bitter accusations with Russia over Ukraine, but in space, it’s a different story.

The space collaboration between the two nations has survived other diplomatic kerfuffles — most recently, the war in Syria and asylum for NSA leaker Edward Snowden — and there’s no need to worry, NASA says.

“We do not expect the current Russia-Ukraine situation to have any impact on our civil space cooperation with Russia, including our partnership on the International Space Station program,” said Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesman, pointing out that it’s in both countries’ best interests not to disrupt “operations that have maintained continuous human presence on orbit for over a decade.”

Beutel added, “NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, have maintained a professional, beneficial and collegial working relationship through the various ups and downs of the broader U.S.-Russia relationship and we expect that to continue.”

The two nations can’t afford temporary tussles to upend a costly relationship — one that James Oberg, a former space engineer, describes as “reluctant co-dependency.”

In 2011, NASA retired its space shuttle fleet, its only means of getting to and from the station. Now, Russian Soyuz capsules ferry U.S. astronauts and cosmonauts, together with supplies that can fit in the smaller craft.

In turn, the United States brings to the table technology far more advanced than Russia’s capabilities, Oberg told Politico.

At the same time, many of the Russian systems are more reliable because they are simpler and have been operating longer, Leroy Chiao, former NASA astronaut and International Space Station commander, said.

The space station itself has an intricate blend of both countries’ contributions — from U.S. solar arrays and power systems to Russian core life-support systems, to a navigation system that comes from both countries, he said.

Americans and Russians train on each other’s systems, but one country can’t run the station alone, he said.

The mission control centers in Houston and Korolyov, near Moscow, have to coordinate commands sent to the station, he said.

“We need each other to operate the station,” Chiao said. “Otherwise we run the risk of losing that asset.”

A pretty penny

What’s more, the agreement between the two nations isn’t exactly cheap.

According to a new deal NASA signed with the Russian space agency, the United States will pay Russia $71 million to ferry each astronaut to the space station.

The emergence of private companies in the space transport business may change the game.

NASA has a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX to fly at least 12 cargo resupply missions to the space station, and a $1.9 billion contract with Orbital Sciences for eight such missions.

SpaceX is gearing up for its third commercial resupply mission this month; Orbital Sciences completed its first in February.

As for transporting astronauts, NASA said in November that it’s seeking to partner with U.S. companies for human trips to the station as well, by 2017. That could end U.S. reliance on Russia for space voyages.

But for now, experts say, the U.S.-Russia relationship on space remains a marriage of convenience.

CNN contributed to this report.