No crystal anniversary gifts were exchanged among the Expedition 45 crew—Commander Scott Kelly, Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko, Oleg Kononenko and Sergei Volkov, NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren and Japan’s Kimiya Yui—today (Monday, 2 November), even though their orbital home, the International Space Station (ISS) passed 15 years since the arrival of its first long-duration crew. Instead, a press conference with media from the United States, Russia and Japan allowed the six men to respond to a broad series of questions, ranging from how their lives converged onto a spacefaring career to the levels of maintenance required on the steadily aging station and their hopes for the future.
Gathered in the station’s U.S. Destiny laboratory, with Kelly at front-center, flanked by Lindgren and Yui, and with their three cosmonaut comrades bringing up the rear, the crew was contacted at 10:05 a.m. EST for voice checks from the Capcom console in the Mission Control Center (MCC) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, which was manned this morning by veteran astronauts Stephanie Wilson and Barry “Butch” Wilmore. Expedition 45 represents the 45th long-term increment to have occupied the ISS since Expedition 1 Commander Bill Shepherd and Russia’s Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev boarded the then-infant station on 2 November 2000 to kick off a period of continuous habitation which looks set to continue through at least 2024. Asked about the purpose of this Earth-circling homestead, Kelly stressed that the structure itself was perhaps the most significant “experiment”, placing emphasis upon its sophisticated life-support and electrical systems, which had kept dozens of astronauts and cosmonauts alive for 15 years. From a scientific and exploration standpoint, Lindgren described the ISS as “a bridge” and Kelly added that, despite its steadily increasing age, he had not noticed that he was spending any more time on maintenance or repairs since his previous expedition on Expedition 25-26 in 2010-2011. He pointed out that it was well-stocked with internal and external spares and, although he acquiesced that none of the Expedition 45 had shared crystal gifts for the 15-year milestone, they were aware that 2 November 2015 was “a very important anniversary for this important facility”.
All six men were united in their belief that the ISS reflected what Kelly described as “a long-term presence in space” and, asked if the “ship” deserved a name less cumbersome than “International Space Station”, he noted that it was problematic from the start. Bill Shepherd initially dubbed it “Alpha”, although this nomenclature never really stuck, in part because of its implication of being “first”, whereas it had been preceded by Russia’s Mir space station. “I was around then; been around a long time,” said Kelly, who actually served as NASA’s manager of operations in Star City, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, from mid-2000, in the run-up to Expedition 1. “There was never anything we could agree on among the international partners.” However, in hindsight, he admitted that he felt the station’s current designation is ultimately better than Alpha. Looking to the future, Kelly is hopeful for commercial space stations, but expects them to be “really expensive” and would prefer a smaller outpost, with “more focused goals”.
Picking up the conference, the Russian Public Affairs Office (PAO) in Moscow highlighted the recent tragic crash of a passenger airliner in Egypt, before opening the floor to questions from journalists. The cosmonauts were asked about a range of topics—with Kornienko describing his recent EVA with Expedition 44 Commander Gennadi Padalka in August as akin to the seconds before a parachute jump, in terms of adrenaline-driven excitement and Volkov expressing his hope to share a dinner in the Zvezda module on Wednesday (4 November) in honor of Russia’s National Unity Day—whilst Yui thanked members of the Japanese media for gathering at midnight, local time, and described himself as “honored” to be able to participate in an ISS expedition. It has been suggested that Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui’s return to Earth aboard Soyuz TMA-17M may be brought forward from 22 December to 12 December. Responding to a question about this possibility, Kononenko explained that he had received an uplinked radiogram with new dates and that his crew would “probably have to go down a bit earlier”, hinting that Visiting Vehicle traffic is a key player in the potential timeline changes.
“Over the weekend, I called NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who is currently halfway through his one-year mission aboard the International Space Station, to congratulate him on setting the American records for both cumulative and continuous days in space,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden in a statement Monday. “I also took the opportunity to congratulate Commander Kelly—and the rest of the space station crew—for being part of a remarkable moment 5,478 days in the making: the 15th anniversary of continuous human presence aboard the space station.
“I believe the station should be considered the blueprint for peaceful global cooperation,” continued Mr. Bolden. “For more than a decade and a half, it has taught us about what’s possible when tens of thousands of people across 15 countries collaborate to advance shared goals. The International Space Station, which President Obama has extended through 2024, is a testament to the ingenuity and boundless imagination of the human spirit. The work being done on board is an essential part of NASA’s journey to Mars, which will bring American astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s.
“For 15 years, humanity’s reach has extended beyond Earth’s atmosphere,” he concluded. “Since 2000, human beings have been living continuously aboard the space station, where they have been working off-the-Earth for the benefit of Earth, advancing scientific knowledge, demonstrating new technologies, and making research breakthroughs that will enable long-duration human and robotic exploration into deep space.”
“The International Space Station is a unique laboratory that has enabled groundbreaking research in the life and physical sciences and has provided a test bed for the technologies that will allow NASA to once again send astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit,” said Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “The international partnership that built and maintains the Station is a shining example, moreover, of what humanity can accomplish when we work together in peace. I congratulate all of the men and women at NASA and around the world who have worked so hard to keep the International Space Station operational these past 15 years. Everyone involved can be proud of this incredible achievement.”
The significance of today’s 15-year anniversary, however, cannot be underestimated. As outlined in last weekend’s AmericaSpace history articles, the 136 days spent aboard the multi-national outpost by the Expedition 1 crew opened the door to 44 subsequent increments, which has so far seen no less than 220 souls from 17 sovereign nations—the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, Italy, South Africa, France, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Brazil, Germany, Sweden, Malaysia, South Korea and, most recently, Denmark and Kazakhstan—visit the station from its earliest days as a two-module infant in December 1998 to its current sprawling state as the largest artificial satellite (and, by default, the largest inhabited structure) ever operated beyond Earth’s “sensible” atmosphere. Today’s 5,477th day of continuous occupation of the ISS also marks the 219th day in orbit for Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko—both of whom last week passed the 60-percent-complete point of their one-year mission—as well as the 102nd day in space for Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui and the 61st day aloft for relatively new arrival Volkov.
Over the last 15 years, expedition crews have occupied the station for extended periods as short as just 48 days, in the case of Frenchman Léopold Eyharts on Expedition 16 in February-March 2008, to the current 219 days (and counting) spent in orbit by Kelly and Kornienko, which already marks theirs out as the seventh longest space mission of all time and will advance them into fourth place— behind the 366 days achieved by Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov, the 379 days reached by Sergei Avdeyev and the 437 days of incumbent world record-holder Valeri Polyakov—by the time they return to Earth in March 2016. In fact, during the course of his increment, Kelly became the first U.S. citizen to command the ISS on as many as two discrete occasions and personally surpassed fellow astronaut Mike Fincke to become the single most experienced American spacefarer and subsequently eclipsed Mike Lopez-Alegria to secure the record for the longest single mission ever undertaken by a U.S. citizen. His first spacewalk with Kjell Lindgren, last week, made him the first American to perform an EVA so deep (215 days) into a space mission, knocking fellow record-holder Rick Mastracchio (with 167 days) off the U.S. top spot.
Since Expedition 1, indeed, the records have been set and re-set. Aside from the individual achievements of visiting shuttle and Soyuz flights, the first national astronauts of Brazil, Sweden, Malaysia, South Korea and Denmark to the station, as well as Japan’s and Italy’s first female spacefarers have been delivered to the station. By default, they all secured their own empirical duration records, with that of Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti in June 2015 particularly notable, as she seized the crown for the longest single space mission ever undertaken by a woman, flying for just a few hours shy of 200 days in orbit. This year garnered additional significance on 28 June, when Russia’s Gennadi Padalka—the first human to command as many as four long-duration ISS expeditions—became the world’s most experienced spacefarer, with a cumulative 878 days of space-time across a five-mission career, soundly eclipsing the previous record-holder, Sergei Krikalev. And next month, if all goes well, the first UK Government-sponsored British astronaut, Tim Peake—flying under the umbrella of the European Space Agency (ESA)—will launch aboard Soyuz TMA-19M for a half-year increment, spanning Expeditions 46-47.
In fact, even whilst the Expedition 1 crew was in orbit, the records were being set. On STS-102, the March 2001 shuttle flight tasked with bringing them back to Earth and delivering the replacement Expedition 2 trio, a record for the longest single EVA ever undertaken in human history was set. Astronauts Jim Voss and Susan Helms spent a total of eight hours and 56 minutes performing a myriad of tasks outside the station on a spacewalk whose extreme duration, even today, has never been surpassed. Barely six weeks later, Chris Hadfield became the first Canadian astronaut to perform an EVA and, in June 2001, Usachev and Voss performed a fully-suited 19-minute Intravehicular Activity (IVA)—the first of only two such “internal” spacewalks yet performed in the ISS era—in Russian Orlan-M (“Sea Eagle”) suits to install a docking cone at the end of the Zvezda service module, ahead of the arrival of Russia’s Pirs docking compartment, later that fall.
During the time of the expedition crews, the ISS itself expanded dramatically. When NASA’s Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev boarded the station on 2 November 2000, they entered a nascent outpost, which comprised the Zvezda service module, the Zarya control module and the Unity connecting node, together with three Pressurized Mating Adapters (PMAs) and the Z-1 element of the Integrated Truss Structure (ITS). By the time they departed, 4.5 months later, the first U.S.-built set of power-producing solar arrays and radiators and the U.S. Destiny laboratory had arrived, pushing the station’s size and mass, for the first time, beyond that of Mir and even the voluminous Skylab. Even at this relatively early stage, the ISS tipped the celestial scales at 224,000 pounds (101,600 kg) and boasted a total pressurized extent of 13,000 cubic feet (368 cubic meters). Under Expedition 2, this expansion continued, with the installation of the Quest airlock and the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm, followed by Pirs, whose own arrival came just two weeks after Expedition 3 Commander Frank Culbertson secured the unenviable record of being the only American in space on the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The following year saw the first so-called “Stage EVA”, performed in U.S. Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs), in the absence of a docked shuttle. Known as “U.S. EVA-1”, the spacewalk was performed on 20 February 2002—the 40th anniversary of John Glenn having become the first American to orbit Earth—and saw Expedition 4 astronauts Carl Walz and Dan Bursch spend 5.5 hours preparing for the arrival of the first major elements of the station’s truss structure. Theirs marked the first of 32 U.S. Stage EVAs, the most recent of which was undertaken last week by Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren, which have accomplished multiple tasks, installing and replacing equipment and performing hardware reconfigurations ahead of the delivery of new modules and components.
For Bursch and Walz, the conclusion of Expedition 4 on 19 June 2002 secured a record for the longest single ISS increment at that time—not to mention the longest discrete American space mission—at almost 196 days and more than 3,000 orbits of the Home Planet. For Walz, who had slightly more cumulative space-time than Bursch, it also established him as the most seasoned U.S. astronaut, with a combined 230 days, spread across his four career missions. Walz’ record would endure for a further 18 months, until Expedition 8 Commander Mike Foale surpassed his total on 8 December 2003, establishing a new empirical U.S. total of almost 374 days by the time he returned to Earth in April 2004. This record lasted another four years, until it was slightly eclipsed by Peggy Whitson’s 377-day cumulative total at the close of Expedition 16 in April 2008, then by Mike Fincke’s 381 days at the touchdown of Endeavour’s STS-134 mission on 1 June 2011, and last month by Scott Kelly.
Kelly’s achievement also broke the record, on 29 October, for the longest single mission by an American citizen, which Mike Lopez-Alegria seized from Expedition 4’s Walz and Bursch in early April 2007, three weeks before his own return to Earth. By the time he touched down on 21 April, to conclude Expedition 14, Lopez-Alegria wrapped up 215 days in space. However, Lopez-Alegria does retain the record for the greatest amount of EVA time ever accrued by a U.S. astronaut, with almost 68 hours in ten spacewalks. Since all of his EVAs were performed at the ISS—five during two shuttle assembly missions and five more during his long-duration increment—Lopez-Alegria is also the world record-holder for the most amount of time spent spacewalking outside the multi-national outpost. Lopez-Alegria’s former Expedition 14 crewmate, Sunita Williams, also holds the accolade for the greatest amount of EVA time ever performed by a woman, with almost 51 hours spent outside the ISS on seven spacewalks. On the international front, in August 2013 Expedition 36 cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Aleksandr Misurkin spent seven hours and 29 minutes in vacuum, thereby securing a new record for Russia’s longest-ever spacewalk, whilst the ISS has also played host to the first national EVAs of Canada, Sweden and Italy.
Nor are the ISS records expected to stop with Kelly and Kornienko’s 342-day increment, even though no further one-year missions are baselined. By the time he returns to Earth, Kelly is expected to have accrued a career total of 522 days in orbit, which—based upon recent projections in NASA Flight Planning Integration Panel (FPIP) documentation—may itself be exceeded by U.S. astronauts Jeff Williams and Peggy Whitson, who in March and November 2016, respectively, will become the first American man and woman to have flown as many as three long-duration space missions.
Notwithstanding the raft of endurance records previously accomplished aboard their Salyut and Mir space stations—which saw no less than four cosmonauts exceed one continuous Earth-year in orbit—the Russians have established a number of accolades of their own aboard the ISS, most recently Gennadi Padalka’s achievement for the most amount of time spent away from the Home Planet. His record broke that of Sergei Krikalev, who, in August 2005, secured a total of 803 days, after becoming the first person to fly two long-duration ISS increments. Two years ago, Pavel Vinogradov became the oldest Russian cosmonaut, aged 59-60, as well as pipping former Hubble Space Telescope (HST) spacewalker Story Musgrave by becoming the oldest person ever to embark on an EVA. And it was Gennadi Padalka himself, working with Mike Fincke on Expedition 9 in June 2004, who embarked on the shortest EVA ever undertaken in the ISS era. Expecting to spend six hours replacing a faulty circuit breaker on the exterior of the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS), their spacewalk was cut short after just 14 minutes when the primary oxygen bottle in Fincke’s Orlan-M suit began to lose pressure at a faster than expected rate.
Birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgiving meals, Valentine’s and Father’s Day celebrations, Christmas festivities, New Year fireworks and other special events have been observed by astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the ISS over its first 15 years of continuous habitation. From the irradiated Thanksgiving turkey enjoyed by Expedition 1’s Bill Shepherd, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev in November 2000 to the Earth-based fireworks glimpsed from orbit by the six-strong Expedition 42 crew at the dawn of 2015, from the marriage of Expedition 7’s Yuri Malenchenko to his Houston, Texas-based bride in August 2003 to the birth of Mike Fincke’s second daughter in June 2004, and from the 60th birthday of Pavel Vinogradov in August 2013 to the joint U.S./Russian/German crew of Expedition 40 watching Germany win the World Cup on July 2014, the joyous times have been many. So too, sadly, have been the tragedies: from Frank Culbertson’s heart-rending vista of a shattered New York skyline on 9/11 to informing Expedition 6 Commander Ken Bowersox and his crewmates, Russia’s Nikolai Budarin and NASA astronaut Don Pettit, of the catastrophic loss of Columbia during re-entry on 1 February 2003, as well as the untimely death of Expedition 16 astronaut Dan Tani’s mother in December 2007.
Across 45 increments, long-duration astronauts and cosmonauts have spent periods from 48 days to 219 days (and counting) aboard an outpost which has expanded substantially, with the addition of the European Columbus and Japanese Kibo research laboratories, the Harmony and Tranquility nodes, the multi-windowed cupola and a vast truss structure, which accommodates four gigantic sets of solar arrays, radiators and batteries. Most of the ISS expeditions have been commanded by American astronauts or Russian cosmonauts—20 by the former, 22 by the latter, to date—although one apiece has been helmed by each of the International Partners (IPs). Belgian astronaut Frank de Winne, flying on behalf of ESA, led Expedition 21 in the fall of 2009, during a period which saw increments evolve from three-member to six-member crews, whilst Canada’s Chris Hadfield commanded Expedition 35 in the spring of 2013 and Japan’s Koichi Wakata headed Expedition 39 in early 2014. During the transition to six-crew capability, the irrepressible Gennadi Padalka commanded both Expeditions 19 and 20, becoming the first person to lead two consecutive increments, an achievement since matched by Scott Kelly, who currently commands Expedition 45 and will also rotate into the command of Expedition 46 in December 2015.
Between December 1998 and July 2011, no fewer than 37 shuttle missions transported hardware and humans to the ISS and supported a total of 109 EVAs to install and activate the truss structure and solar arrays, the respective scientific research laboratories of the United States, Japan and Europe, the three pressurized nodes and the multi-windowed cupola, as well as the components of Canadarm2—including its Mobile Transporter (MT), Mobile Base System (MBS) and the mechanical arm itself—and several Russian components. Logistics and resupply, through the Spacehab single and double cargo modules and the Italian-built Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules (MPLMs), also enabled the station to evolve its habitability and its scientific potential. All but five of those 37 flights, and all but ten of the shuttle-based EVAs, were performed with a permanent ISS expedition crew in residence, providing critical support. When the shuttle was absent, a further 32 spacewalks were performed in U.S. EMUs and 47 in Russian Orlan-M or upgraded Orlan-MK suits between June 2001 and October 2015. All told, the 189 EVAs executed outside the ISS have totaled some 1,184 hours, which equates to approximately 49 days of work in near-total vacuum.
In addition to the “professional” crew members who have occupied the station for months at a time, and the multitude of shuttle and Soyuz visitors who have contributed enormously to making the ISS what it is today, several non-career Spaceflight Participants (SFPs) have also journeyed into orbit. The first fee-paying “space tourist” was U.S. businessman Dennis Tito, originally pointed to a flight to Mir, but ultimately—and not without significant opposition and consternation—reassigned to an ISS visit in April 2001.
Over the next eight years, several other tourists followed Tito, including South African computing entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth—at 28, the youngest person ever to travel to the station—and U.S. engineers Greg Olsen and Anousheh Ansari, U.S. software executive Charles Simonyi (twice), U.S. video game developer Richard Garriott and Canadian Cirque du Soleil founder, Guy Laliberte. Since the flight of Laliberte, no further tourists have launched to the ISS, although English soprano Sarah Brightman entered training for such a flight in early 2015, but subsequently withdrew, reportedly due to funding and family issues, and was replaced by Kazakh cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov.