At NASA he’s known as Astronaut Richard Mastracchio. On Twitter he goes by AstroRM. But in Waterbury he’s just plain Rick, and he’s due to blast off on Wednesday. He’s been tweeting for months during his training, and among his thousands of followers are many Waterbury school children.
He won’t be taking off from Cape Canaveral, though — in fact, not from the U.S. at all. Although he works for NASA, Mastracchio has been training at Russia’s Star City, and he’s due to ride to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz capsule, powered by a Proton rocket, launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan.
Mastracchio has flown into space three times before, but this ISS mission, at six months, will be by far his longest. Having retired its space shuttle fleet, the U.S. has no launch vehicle capable of such a flight, and won’t until the next generation of rockets comes along.
So this is a Russian operation. Baikonur is the same place that sent Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite, into orbit in 1957 — causing so much chagrin in the U.S. that it started a space race with the Soviet Union that didn’t end until the U.S. put two men on the moon in 1969. Baikonur is also the base that launched Yuri Gagarin, the first human to orbit our planet, in 1961. In those days there was still a Soviet Union, and Kazakhstan was part of it.
(In those days there was also a Cold War, and the Soviets apparently named their main missile launch complex after a small town about 200 miles away in order to conceal its location from their archenemy, America.)
Mastraccio will be carrying a number of trinkets into orbit, souvenirs of Waterbury. He’ll also be carrying the good wishes of people from his home town and from all over his home state.