NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and two Russian cosmonauts will board a Soyuz ferry to the International Space Station early Friday, the first leg of a record-breaking crew rotation requiring two launches and two landings with four spacecraft different spaces in just three weeks.
The launch is scheduled for 3:42 a.m. EDT on Friday (12:42 p.m. local time) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The launch comes just three days before the 60th anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight on April 12, 1961, to become the first man in space. More than 570 men and women have made the trip since then, fueling the competition and then cooperation between Russia and the United States that resulted in the International Space Station.
“When we started out we were competing with each other and that was one of the reasons we were so successful in the early days of manned space flight,” Vande Hei said at a conference. pre-launch press. “And over time we realized that by working together we could achieve even more. This continues to this day, and I hope it continues in the future.
Kicking off the replacement of the station’s current seven-member crew, the Soyuz spacecraft will carry Vande Hei, Soyuz MS-18 / 64S commander Oleg Novitskiy and flight engineer Pyotr Dubrovnik.
Climbing directly into the plane of the space station’s orbit, the Soyuz was to overtake the space station in just two orbits, docking at the Earth-facing Rassvet module at 7:07 a.m. EDT.
Getting ready to welcome them on board will beCommander Sergey Ryzhikov and his two teammates, Sergey Kud-Sverchkov and Kate Rubins, as well as astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.
The expanded 10-member crew will enjoy a week together before Ryzhikov, Kud-Sverchkov and Rubins break away and return to Earth aboard their own Soyuz, landing in the steppe of Kazakhstan at 12:56 p.m. EDT on April 17 to close. a 185- day mission.
Five days later, at 6:11 a.m. on April 22, NASA and SpaceX plan to launch a Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to transport Crew 2 Commander Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur. , the Japanese Akihiko Hoshide. and ESA’s Thomas Pesquet at the station, briefly bringing the lab crew to 11.
After helping their replacements to familiarize themselves with station systems, the– Hopkins, Glover, Walker and Noguchi – will return home, diving into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida on April 28 to conclude a 164-day flight, the first operational mission of a SpaceX Crew Dragon.
And with this, the replacement of the crew of the space station will be completed. The Crew-2 astronauts and the crew of the Soyuz MS-18 / 64S are expected to be replaced, in turn, in late September and mid-October respectively.
Six months in space could extend to a year
But Vande Hei, a last-minute addition to Soyuz’s final crew, isn’t sure when he’ll be able to hitchhike home. While his flight is officially scheduled to last six months, he could end up living aboard the space station for a full year.
This is because NASA officials want to ensure a continued U.S. presence aboard the lab to ensure that a properly trained NASA astronaut is on board at all times to operate U.S. systems, even if launches are interrupted. or if something forces a partial evacuation.
“The plan is for me to be on board for six months,” Vande Hei said from Moscow in a pre-launch interview with CBS News. “Of course it’s a very dynamic situation so we try to make sure we’re ready for anything. I certainly feel emotionally ready to stay in orbit for much longer than the six months planned.”
He added, “There are a variety of things that could have an impact when I return (but) I’m also very sure that whatever happens we’ll make sure we have a permanent US presence on the space station. . ” NASA wants to ensure the continued launch of US astronauts aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and Russian cosmonauts aboard US ferries, even though the US space agency has funded the development of commercial crew ships to end its sole dependence to Russia for transportation to and from the station.
Russian cosmonauts are not trained to operate NASA’s solar power system, computers, stabilization gyroscopes, and other systems. Likewise, American astronauts are also not prepared to use Russian propulsion, docking and other mission-critical systems.
If a medical emergency or other crisis required a Russian or NASA crew to make an unscheduled departure, the crew members left behind, trained to operate the American or Russian systems – but not both – might not be. able to maintain the station by themselves.
Likewise, NASA wants to guard against the possibility of a launch accident or a major technical problem that could interrupt or suspend the crew’s rotational flights.
There are no short-term Soyuz seats available – Rubins used the last seat purchased directly by NASA – and in any case, NASA is no longer allowed to buy rides on a Russian spacecraft. Vande Hei’s seat was secured through Houston-based Axiom Space in exchange for a future flight by a commercial astronaut on a NASA-sponsored ferry.
NASA officials hope to strike a deal with the Russian space agency to ensure crew continuity aboard the station by launching at least one NASA astronaut aboard each Soyuz flight and one cosmonaut aboard each. American commercial crew mission.
In the meantime, Vande Hei is ready to stay in orbit for as long as it takes a seat to open.
“The attitude we take is that every step of this (mission) means I’m just a lot closer to going home, whether it’s six months or more,” he said. “My wife really has a fantastic attitude. I’ve deployed a few times (but) for my family, that would be a record holder.”