A Russian Soyuz capsule on Thursday carried three new crew members to the International Space Station, including the first Russian woman to live aboard the orbital outpost.
Elena Serova is only the fourth Russian woman to fly into space, and the first since Elena Kondakova in 1997. In contrast, NASA has flown more than 40 women astronauts. Two of them have served as commanders of the space station: Peggy Whitson in 2007-2008, and Sunita Williams in 2012.
Serova and her crewmates, NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore and Russia's Alexander Samokutyaev, blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:25 p.m. ET Thursday, which was 2:25 a.m. local time Friday. One of the Soyuz capsule's two power-producing solar arrays failed to deploy in orbit, but NASA said the crew was never in any danger.
The capsule successfully docked with the space station several minutes ahead of schedule, at 10:11 p.m. ET. "Contact and capture confirmed," Mission Control said. The solar array deployed properly after docking.
The three arriving spacefliers boost the Expedition 41 crew to its full complement of six. During their six-month tour of duty, Serova, Wilmore and Samokutyaev will help maintain the station and conduct scientific experiments.
The other three crew members are Russia's Max Suraev, NASA's Reid Wiseman and German astronaut Alexander Gerst. They've been aboard the station since May and are scheduled to head home in a different Soyuz capsule in November.
'It's my work'
In a pre-flight NASA interview, Serova said she tried not to dwell on her place in history. "Space is what I do for work, and that’s what I think about it: It’s my work," she said. "But obviously for Russian women it might be a breakthrough."
The first woman in space was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who flew on a Vostok craft in 1963. Svetlana Savitskaya was No. 2: She became the world's first woman spacewalker in 1984 when she was part of the repair team for the Soviet Union's Salyut 7 space station.
Kondakova spent five months aboard Russia's Mir space station in 1994-1995 — a stint that made her the first woman to live in space for a long-duration mission. She also flew aboard the shuttle Atlantis for a visit to Mir in 1997.
'Fragile and delicate'
Despite all the firsts, women have not always had an easy time in the Russian space program. In 2005, for example, the director of Russia's top space medical institute said women weren't suited to lead the way to Mars because they were "fragile and delicate creatures."
Serova, 38, worked as an engineer for Russia's Energia rocket company and Russian Mission Control for several years before her selection to join the cosmonaut corps in 2006. She and her husband, fellow cosmonaut Mark Serov, have an 11-year-old daughter.
During the Soyuz crew's pre-launch news conference, Serova fielded questions about how she'll keep in touch with her daughter — and what kind of hair style she'd adopt in zero-G. Sitting alongside her male crewmates, Serova quipped, "Aren't you interested in the hair styles of my colleagues?"
NBC News space analyst James Oberg said Serova "is the first Russian woman to fly in space purely on her professional merits — and they are spectacular."
"She deserves, and I'm sure will earn and ultimately receive, a major role in human spaceflight in coming decades," Oberg said in an email. "She could easily someday become the first woman on the moon."
Soon Serova will have some female company on the space station: Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti is scheduled to start her own tour of duty in November as part of the next three-person crew contingent. Cristoforetti will be only the third European woman to go into space, following in the footsteps of Britain's Helen Sharman (1991) and France's Claudie Haignere (2001).