Two experienced U.S. astronauts, with a combined total of more than 300 days in orbit, have reportedly begun pre-flight preparations at the Star City cosmonauts training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow. According to the Russian Tass news agency on Monday, veteran spacewalker and International Space Station (ISS) resident Joe Acaba will occupy the vacant third seat aboard the Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft when it launches from Baikonur in Kazakhstan in mid-September. He will fly shoulder-to-shoulder with Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Misurkin and NASA’s Mark Vande Hei and will spend six months aboard the station as a member of the Expedition 53 and 54 crews. Acaba’s backup is reported to be Shannon Walker, who is expected to rotate into the vacant third seat aboard Soyuz MS-08, when it flies in March 2018.
Neither assignment has been confirmed by NASA, with the Johnson Space Center (JSC) Public Affairs Office advising AmericaSpace on Tuesday that it “can’t comment on any crew members who haven’t been officially announced”. What is known, however, is that NASA astronauts will fly aboard Soyuz MS-06 and Soyuz MS-08, increasing the size of the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) crew from three to four long-duration members for the first time. A move to four USOS astronauts as a means of enhancing the overall ISS science yield by as much as 50 percent has long been NASA’s intent and was previously expected to reach fruition when the Commercial Crew vehicles—Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon—come online in the latter half of 2018.
The advancement of those plans came about following last summer’s announcement that Russia would reduce its cosmonauts aboard the station from three to two throughout 2017 and most of 2018. This reduction came in the wake of repeated delays to Russia’s Nauka (“Science”) research module, which has incurred significant manufacturing and quality control problems for more than a decade and is now expected to launch no sooner than the end of 2017, although next spring is considered more likely. Dovetailed into this mix has been Russia’s decision to reduce the number of unpiloted Progress cargo ships it sends to the ISS from four to three per annum.
In response to Russia’s crewing decision, several astronauts and cosmonauts slated for 2017 missions were moved around. As reported by AmericaSpace last fall, this required the deletion of several Russian cosmonauts and the re-training of a number of U.S. astronauts to fulfil the systems-intensive Flight Engineer-1 (FE-1) role aboard the Soyuz. In order to allow enough time for this re-training to occur, several earlier flights were moved further downstream and some later flights were brought forward. One notable consequence was that Misurkin and Vande Hei—previously slated to fly Soyuz MS-04 in March—will now fly Soyuz MS-06 in September. This allows Vande Hei to transition from his previous right-seat FE-2 role to the critical FE-1 role in the Soyuz left seat.
Another result of this fluid situation was that a vacant third seat opened up on Misurkin and Vande Hei’s Soyuz MS-06, following the removal of “rookie” cosmonaut Nikolai Tikhonov from their original crew. A similar situation arose on Soyuz MS-08, now targeted for a March 2018 launch. Initially, it was anticipated that the volume of the third seat would either be used for cargo or to accommodate a fee-paying Spaceflight Participant (SFP). However, the shortness of time made the latter possibility untenable.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that Boeing had won the right to five Soyuz seats as part of the $350 million settlement in a legal dispute with Rocket and Space Corp. (RSC) Energia over debts accrued in the multi-national Sea Launch joint venture. Last month, Boeing and NASA agreed on a contract modification, worth $373.5 million, which will see the space agency take one of those Soyuz seats in September 2017, a second in March 2018 and potentially three more in the 2019 timeframe, thereby hedging against the risk of further delays to the already beleagured Commercial Crew program. Moreover, the deal with Boeing enables NASA to purchase each seat for the equivalent of just $74.7 million, which is significantly lower than the $81.7-million-per-seat it agreed to pay Russia back in August 2015.
According to Tass on Monday, Joe Acaba will join Misurkin and Vande Hei aboard Soyuz MS-06, which is currently scheduled to fly from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, no sooner than 13 September. “His flight will be financed by Russia’s Rocket and Space Corp. Energia as debt repayment to Boeing under the joint project Sea Launch,” it was noted. Tass added that Acaba’s backup would be veteran astronaut Shannon Walker, who would “most likely” rotate into the prime crew of Soyuz MS-08, targeted for launch in March 2018. This latter crew will include U.S. astronaut Drew Feustel and an as-yet-unannounced Russian cosmonaut in command. This trio will spend six months in orbit as part of Expeditions 55 and 56, returning to Earth in September 2018.
“Acaba has been aboard ISS and head of ISS ops for the past couple of years,” a source close to the Astronaut Office told AmericaSpace. “If anyone could slide into a fall 2017 [Soyuz] seat, he could.” As for Walker, she served as Branch Chief for ISS Ops “going back to 2013” and presently serves as Deputy Assistant to the Chief of the Astronaut Office for ISS, a position which carries substantial weight in advancing her assignment to this upcoming mission spot. Ordinarily, station crews train for approximately 2.5 years, as opposed to the 6-12 months available to Acaba and Walker. “But obviously Acaba and Walker, dealing with daily ISS matters,” the source told AmericaSpace, “and both having experience on ISS, could ramp up quite quickly.”
Both Acaba and Walker joined NASA in May 2004, having been selected in the same astronaut class as the incumbent Chief Astronaut, Chris Cassidy. Perhaps indicative of the need for experience in view of the short training template for this mission, they bring a raft of accomplishments to bear. Both have completed a long-duration ISS increment and both have lived and worked aboard the Aquarius undersea research laboratory, off Key Largo, Fla. Walker commanded NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO)-15 in October 2011 and Acaba led the Space Environment Analog for Testing EVA Systems and Training (SEATEST)-II in September 2013.
The 49-year-old Acaba, a former high school science and math teacher, was one of three Educator-Astronauts, alongside Ricky Arnold and Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger. Of Puerto Rican heritage, he earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in geology, served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a sergeant and supervised trainee teachers in the Dominican Republic. He flew twice in space, performing two EVAs—totaling almost 13 hours—during shuttle mission STS-119 in March 2009 and living aboard the ISS as a member of the Expedition 31/32 crew from May through September 2012. At the end of his second flight, Acaba had logged almost 138 days in orbit.
Dr. Shannon Walker is a 51-year-old space physicist, with undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees from Rice University. Married to former astronaut Andy Thomas, Walker’s career at JSC began in 1987 with Rockwell as a Space Shuttle robotics flight controller. She later worked in the ISS Mission Evaluation Room (MER), supervising the co-ordination of on-orbit problem resolutions, and later served as acting manager of the On-Orbit Engineering Office before selection into NASA’s astronaut corps. She launched aboard Soyuz TMA-19 in June 2010 and returned to Earth the following November, completing 163 days in space as a member of the Expedition 24/25 crew.
At the time of writing, no confirmation has emerged from the U.S. side about these reported assignments. “Crew assignments for the newly purchased seats will be announced once they have gone through the standard assignment process,” NASA’s Dan Huot told AmericaSpace last week. Certainly, speculation has arisen recently over the identity of the crew members, with shuttle and ISS veteran Douglas “Wheels” Wheelock tweeting an image of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) training in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) in Houston. Questioned as to whether a future ISS crew assignment was on the horizon, Wheelock tweeted: “Quite possibly. Stay tuned.”
Yet it seems probable that the long-anticipated increase in USOS crew size to four members may come even sooner, with speculation since January that Peggy Whitson—who launched to the ISS last November and will take command of Expedition 51 next month—may remain aboard the station until early September. No official word on Whitson’s status has yet emerged, with NASA informing AmericaSpace last week that she remains scheduled to land on 2 June, aboard Soyuz MS-03, with her original crewmates Oleg Novitsky and Thomas Pesquet.
However, if Whitson remains aboard through September, the ISS will see an early expansion to four long-duration crew members on the USOS “side” of the space station for the first time. “An additional crew member on the U.S. Segment provides a 50-percent increase in crew time available for ISS utilization activities,” Spaceflight101 highlighted in a recent article, “since the addition of one resident only comes with a marginal increase in maintenance and upkeep of the station’s systems.”
If Whitson’s mission is indeed extended to 9.5 months, it will secure her a personal record for the longest single spaceflight ever undertaken by a woman, eclipsing the 199 days logged by Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti in June 2015. Whitson already stands as the world’s most seasoned female spacefarer. Counting her two previous long-duration ISS increments, as well as her in-progress expedition, she will become the first woman to pass a cumulative 500 days in space on 21 March. By the end of April, she will have surpassed Scott Kelly and Jeff Williams to become the United States’ most experienced astronaut. If Whitson lands on 3 September—returning to Earth shoulder-to-shoulder with Soyuz MS-04 crewmen Fyodor Yurchikhin and Jack Fischer—she will have chalked-up a single-mission record of 290 days and a career total of 667 days across her three ISS expeditions. This will position the former NASA Chief Astronaut as the world’s eighth most seasoned spacefarer.