Fifty years to the day after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon, a NASA astronaut, an Italian flight engineer and a Russian commander blasted off from Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz spacecraft Saturday, chased down the International Space Station and glided in for a picture-perfect docking to close out a "textbook" four-orbit rendezvous.
A few hours earlier, Vice President Mike Pence celebrated the Apollo 11 anniversary with Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, Armstrong family members and scores of space industry executives and lawmakers, reaffirming the Trump administration's commitment to sending astronauts back the the moon in 2024 as a prelude to eventual flights to Mars.
Half a world away at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, NASA's former Cold War rivals were focused on getting three fresh crew members to the International Space Station.
Soyuz MS-13/59S commander Alexander Skvortsov, Italian co-pilot Luca Parmitano and NASA physician-astronaut Andrew Morgan blasted off from Yuri Gagarin's launch pad at the sprawling Kazakh space center at 12:28 p.m. EDT (9:28 p.m. local time), the first step in a four-orbit rendezvous with the laboratory complex.
"I can't think of a better way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing than launching on the anniversary with an international crew, especially in light of NASA's reaffirmation that we intend to land a crew on the surface of the moon in 2024," Morgan said before launch.
That 50-year milestone occurred as the Soyuz MS-13/59S crew was closing in on the International Space Station after a smooth climb to orbit.
A placeholder for the first potential "private astronaut mission" shows up on NASA's international space station traffic chart in October 2020 with a second PAM flight in March 2021.