Space station crew blast off despite virus-hit build up

The Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft blasts off to the International Space Station at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on April 9, 2020 in this still image taken from video. (Roscosmos via Reuters)
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Updated 09 April 2020

Space station crew blast off despite virus-hit build up

  • Crew leaves behind a planet overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic
  • Under usual circumstances, the departing crew would have faced questions from a large press pack

ALMATY, Kazakhstan: A three-man crew blasted off to the International Space Station on Thursday, leaving behind a planet overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency and NASA’s Chris Cassidy launched at 08:05 GMT from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where COVID-19 has caused changes to pre-launch protocol.
The crew told ground control that they were “feeling fine” just before they successfully entered orbit, NASA TV reported. They are expected to dock with the ISS at 14:15 GMT.
Under usual circumstances, the departing crew would have faced questions from a large press pack before being waved off by family and friends.
Neither were present this time round because of travel restrictions imposed over the virus, although the crew did respond to emailed questions from journalists in a Wednesday press conference.
Cassidy, 50, admitted the crew had been affected by their families not being unable to be in Baikonur for their blastoff to the ISS.
“But we understand that the whole world is also impacted by the same crisis,” Cassidy said.
Astronauts routinely go into quarantine ahead of space missions and give a final press conference at Baikonur from behind a glass wall to protect them from infection.
That process began even earlier than usual last month as the trio and their reserve crew hunkered down in Russia’s Star City training center outside Moscow, eschewing traditional pre-launch rituals and visits to the capital.
Roscosmos said on Tuesday that cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka would fly to Russia from the cosmodrome rather than from the usual staging post of Karaganda airport when he returns to Earth from the ISS later this month.
NASA has not yet confirmed travel plans for Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir, who will be departing the ISS along with Skripochka on April 17.
The ISS typically carries up to six people at a time and has a livable space of 388 cubic meters (13,700 cubic feet) — larger than a six-bedroom house according to NASA.
Those dimensions will sound enviable to many residents of Earth, more than half of whom are on various forms of lockdown as governments respond to COVID-19 with drastic measures.
But residents of the ISS frequently feel lonely and crave home comforts.
In recent weeks, astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS and on Earth have been sharing tips on coping with self-isolation.
In a piece for the New York Times last month, NASA’s Scott Kelly said his biggest miss during almost a year in space was nature — “the color green, the smell of fresh dirt, and the feel of warm sun on my face.”
While recommending fresh air walks for those still able to enjoy them, Kelly also said there was nothing wrong with people spending more time in front of a screen during isolation.
During his time aboard the ISS he “binge-watched Game of the Thrones — twice” and enjoyed frequent movie nights with crewmates, he wrote.
Two-time cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy has become the face of a 10-week challenge that will see participants post videos of themselves completing physical exercises as part of a competition aimed at both youth and adults.
The initiative that Roscosmos is backing aims “to support people in a situation of isolation, instil a healthy lifestyle and thoughts through regular sports, without going out in public places,” Ryazanskiy said in a video promoting the “Cosmos Training” challenge.
The launch of Ivanishin, Vagner and Cassidy marks the first time a manned mission has used a Soyuz-2.1a booster to reach orbit, after Roscosmos stopped using the Soyuz-FG rocket last year.
The newer boosters have been used in unmanned launches since 2004.
The upgraded rocket relies on a digital flight control system rather than the analogue equipment used in prior Soyuz models.
The International Space Station — a rare example of cooperation between Russia and the West — has been orbiting Earth at about 28,000 kilometers per hour since 1998.


Saudis turn to technology for Eid gatherings

Updated 24 May 2020

Saudis turn to technology for Eid gatherings

  • Family gatherings or not, the use of video-calling applications is keeping families close and loved ones even closer

JEDDAH: Many special Eid-related traditions have been broken this year as families are forced to stay home because of coronavirus restrictions. But technology has come to the rescue with many relying on video calls to bring family members and loved ones closer. 

Eid Al-Fitr is the occasion Saudis look forward to most — attending Eid prayers at the neighborhood mosque, wearing new clothes, the scent of frankincense around the home, and gathering with cousins at grandparents’ houses decked out with lights and decorations to mark the joyous occasion. 

As the Kingdom endures a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), many Saudis are refusing to allow the pandemic to break their spirits during Eid. Family gatherings or not, the use of video-calling applications is keeping families close and loved ones even closer.

Among those keeping Eid traditions alive, 27-year-old Mohammed Khayat has found a way to connect with his family who live outside Jeddah. Using Zoom, a popular videoconference platform, he has created a fun competition with family members. 

“There will be two boxes; one with easy questions, the other one with difficult questions. An example from the first box would be ‘act out a song, and if someone guessed it right, you win.’ Or ‘When was Jeddah founded?’ or ‘Who is the 17th grandson of my grandmother?’” he told Arab News.

Khayat highlighted the bright side of Eid during the pandemic with everyone available for a virtual gathering.

“It’s going to be fun, because not all family members are usually present in most of our Eid celebrations at the same time. Many live in different cities or even outside the Kingdom. Yes, it’s going to be online, but it’s a great chance for everyone to gather at the same time.”

Lujain Al-Jehani, 26, plans to put on her best clothes and enjoy Eid despite the global despair.

“We’re going to wear our Eid clothes, dress up, put makeup on, and do our hair and nails. We’re cleaning the house and preparing everything as we always do in Eid, but we’re not expecting any guests this year. It’s just us family together,” she told Arab News.

Before the pandemic, Al-Jehani usually spent Eid with her cousins, often spending the entire day at her grandmother’s house to enjoy the festivities. This year, Al-Jehani said that she and her family will keep their spirits high because “it’s still Eid.”

“I’m going to be spending quality time with my family at home. We will play boardgames, listen to music, have breakfast together and hang some Eid decorations. We want to do our Eid traditions within our family because it’s still Eid. We’ll enjoy spending Eid with our family. Thank God, we’re in good health and we’re together.”