Record Breaker: Scott Kelly Becomes Most Experienced US Astronaut Tomorrow

Tomorrow, Scott Kelly will surpass fellow NASA astronaut Mike Fincke to become the United States' most flight-experienced spacefarer. Photo Credit: NASA
Tomorrow, Scott Kelly will surpass fellow NASA astronaut Mike Fincke to become the United States’ most flight-experienced spacefarer. Photo Credit: NASA

At 5:02 a.m. EDT tomorrow (Thursday, 15 October), Scott Kelly—the incumbent skipper of the International Space Station (ISS) as Commander of Expedition 45—will make history when he becomes the United States’ most flight-experienced astronaut. In passing the previous cumulative accomplishment of 381 days, 15 hours, and 11 minutes, set by fellow NASA flier Mike Fincke, way back in May 2011, Kelly yesterday (Tuesday) also passed the 200-day mark of his (almost) year-long increment aboard the multi-national orbiting outpost. And in two weeks’ time, at 12:04 a.m. EDT on Thursday, 29 October, he will also exceed the 215-day record of Mike Lopez-Alegria for the longest single space mission ever flown by an American citizen. In doing so, this month, Kelly becomes the first U.S. astronaut to set a new national record on both fronts, since Carl Walz, more than a decade ago.

“Records are meant to be broken,” was a comment offered by Walz, speaking from NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., to Expedition 8 Commander Mike Foale in early December 2003, as the latter broke the record of the former to become America’s most seasoned space traveler. However, setting cumulative-mission records and single-mission records have not always gone hand-in-hand and, certainly, with the Soviet Union and subsequently Russia having been permanently at the forefront of long-duration spaceflight for almost four decades, the chances of America pulling ahead anytime soon seem slim. That said, Kelly will become only the 20th U.S. astronaut in history to secure for himself both the national records for the longest cumulative time spent in space across his career and for the longest single space mission.

Right from the outset, with Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering orbital flight in April 1961, the Russians had the edge in terms of spending the longest time in space. Gagarin’s 107-minute orbital flight was met only by the 15-minute suborbital “hops” of Freedom 7’s Al Shepard and Liberty Bell 7’s Gus Grissom, whilst the four days spent in orbit by Andrian Nikolayev in August 1962 and five days by Valeri Bykovsky in June 1963 were countered only by the multi-hour missions of John Glenn and Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra. Even the final mission of Project Mercury, a day-long voyage by Gordon Cooper in May 1963, lasted less than a third of the duration of the longest Soviet flight. Nevertheless, all six Mercury missions saw each of their astronauts successively secure the U.S. titles for the longest cumulative time in space and, by default, also the longest single space mission.

Gemini V Command Pilot Gordon Cooper (foreground) became the world's most experienced spacefarer and, with Pilot Pete Conrad (background), became the holder of the longest single space mission in August 1965. Photo Credit: NASA
Gemini V Command Pilot Gordon Cooper (foreground) became the world’s most experienced spacefarer and, with Pilot Pete Conrad (background), became the holder of the longest single space mission in August 1965. Photo Credit: NASA

Things changed in the summer of 1965, as a dramatic slowdown of Russia’s human space program was met by a steady ramping-up of U.S. accomplishments with Project Gemini. In August 1965, Gemini V astronauts Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad endured what they mockingly described as “Eight Days in a Garbage Can,” establishing the necessary baseline for a minimum-duration flight to the Moon. Midway through the flight, they eclipsed Bykovsky’s achievement and Flight Director Chris Kraft remarked “Zap!” as the record was broken. Cooper—who had already accrued a day in space on his Mercury mission—broke his own U.S. record by again securing the U.S. title for longest cumulative time in space and the longest single space mission. The only difference, however, was that it was no longer just an American record, but a world record.

When he was told, his reply was hardly historic: “At last, huh?”

Cooper’s record did not last for long. In December 1965, Gemini VII astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell flew for almost 14 days, providing a baseline for a maximum-length trip to the Moon. Wearing lightweight suits, with zips and soft-cloth hoods, their mission saw the first piloted in-space rendezvous with Gemini VI-A, and their return to Earth made them jointly the most flight-experienced U.S. astronauts to date, as well as joint holders of the longest single space mission ever completed by an American citizen and, of course, secured for both of them the new world record.

Eleven months later, in November 1966, Lovell commanded the four-day Gemini XII and surpassed Borman on each of these achievements, with a personal cumulative record of almost 18 days in space. He subsequently pushed his lead even further in December 1968, when—as a crew member on the first piloted lunar mission, Apollo 8—he added another six days to his tally, followed by a further six days in command of the ill-fated Apollo 13 in April 1970. Closing out his astronaut career, Lovell had spent a cumulative total of just under 30 days in space. It was a national and world record that would remain unbroken for more than three years.

In the meantime, the Soviets were pressing ahead into long-duration spaceflight and had surpassed the Gemini VII achievement by flying Soyuz 9 for almost 18 days in June 1970, followed by the ill-fated Soyuz 11 to the Salyut 1 space station for almost 24 days in June 1971. Although both missions set new world records for the single longest mission, none of their crew members challenged Lovell’s career total. It was not until the 28-day opening expedition to the Skylab space station in mid-1973 that U.S. astronauts again set a new world record for the longest single spaceflight and surpassed Lovell’s total. Commanding that expedition was Pete Conrad, whose combined experience from three prior missions gave him about 49 days of space-time when he returned to Earth. Three months later, Al Bean, the skipper of the second Skylab crew, eclipsed Conrad’s achievement by hitting a career total of 69 days, whilst in February 1974 the final station team of Gerry Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue wrapped up 84 days in orbit. This cemented the credentials of Carr’s crew as joint holders of the longest single mission in history and joint holders of the highest cumulative total of any spacefarer at that time. With the space shuttle anticipated to fly for around a week at a time, their achievement looked set to remain unbroken—as a U.S. record, at least—until the construction of Space Station Freedom in the 1990s.

Pictured aboard Skylab, Bill Pogue (left) and Gerry Carr, together with crewmate Ed Gibson, set a U.S. endurance record of 84 days which remained unbroken for more than two decades. Photo Credit: NASA
Pictured aboard Skylab, Bill Pogue (left) and Gerry Carr, together with crewmate Ed Gibson, set a U.S. endurance record of 84 days which remained unbroken for more than two decades. Photo Credit: NASA

However, the record set by Carr’s crew endured as a “world” record for only four years, until it was eclipsed by Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Romanenko and Georgi Grechko, who logged 96 days upon their return to Earth in March 1978. Over the next two decades, they pushed their lead still further—from 4.5 months to six months, from seven months to eight months, from 11 months to a full year, and, in March 1995, to the current world record of 437 days—and it was not until NASA entered into partnership with Russia that another long-duration U.S. voyage entered the realm of near-term possibility. In the spring and summer of 1995, veteran astronaut Norm Thagard spent four months aboard the Mir space station, establishing a new U.S. single-flight record of 115 days and finally exceeding the achievement of Carr’s crew after 21 years. Moreover, when counting his space-time from four shuttle flights, Thagard had accrued a personal total of 140 days, more than any other American citizen.

Thagard’s record did not last long, for he was surpassed in August 1996 by fellow astronaut and Mir resident Shannon Lucid. By the time she returned to Earth in late September, she had spent 188 days in orbit on a single mission and—when combined with her experience from four prior shuttle flights—she had attained a career total of 223 days away from the Home Planet. Almost six years later, on 12 June 2002, ISS Expedition 4 crewman Carl Walz passed Lucid’s cumulative record and had totaled 230 days in space by the time he returned to Earth on 19 June, whilst also sharing a new 196-day record for the longest single U.S. space mission with crewmate Dan Bursch. In so doing, Walz became the final astronaut before Scott Kelly to have achieved both U.S. records.

Eighteen months later, on 8 December 2003, Expedition 8 Commander Mike Foale eclipsed Walz’ accomplishment and, by the time of his own landing in April 2004, had spent a combined 373 days in orbit, across six missions. This record was later passed by Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson on 16 April 2008, only a few days before her scheduled return to Earth, and by the time she landed on 19 April she had accrued a career total of almost 377 days. Most recently, Whitson was herself surpassed by Mike Fincke on 27 May 2011, just five days before he returned home at the end of Shuttle Endeavour’s swansong mission, STS-134. At 5:02 a.m. EDT tomorrow (Thursday), Fincke’s cumulative record will have itself fallen to Kelly.

As outlined in a previous AmericaSpace article, Kelly’s time aboard the ISS has brought a mixed bag of fortune and misfortune. Launched alongside Russian crewmates Gennadi Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko aboard Soyuz TMA-16M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 26/27 March, he initially formed part of Expedition 43—joining U.S. astronaut Terry Virts, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti—and welcomed SpaceX’s sixth dedicated Dragon Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-6) cargo ship in April. However, ISS operations were significantly impacted by the failure of Russia’s Progress M-27M in the April-May timeframe, which triggered a two-month delay to the launch of Soyuz TMA-17M and its crew of Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, U.S. astronaut Kjell Lindgren, and Japan’s Kimiya Yui. In response to this delay, it was decided to retain Virts, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti aboard the ISS for an additional four weeks, thereby minimizing the length of time that the station would need to operate with a “barebones” crew of three.

The One Year Crew, from left: NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Roscosmos cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. Photo Credit: NASA
The One Year Crew, from left: NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Roscosmos cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. Photo Credit: NASA

In the meantime, the Expedition 43 crew pressed ahead with a major reconfiguration of the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS), robotically relocating the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) from its previous position on the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node to the Tranquility node, in readiness for the delivery of a pair of International Docking Adapters (IDAs) in support of NASA’s Commercial Crew goals. Then, on 28 June, SpaceX’s CRS-7 Dragon—carrying the critical IDA-1 in its unpressurized trunk—was lost 139 seconds after liftoff. Coming only eight months since Orbital Sciences Corp. lost its ORB-3 Cygnus mission, shortly after launch, this event left both of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services partners grounded for the foreseeable future. It also put paid to Kelly’s hopes of performing his first career EVA in August to install and outfit IDA-1 at the Harmony node.

After many delays, Soyuz TMA-17M was finally launched on 22 July and the station was restored to its full complement of six astronauts and cosmonauts, led by Expedition 44 Commander Gennadi Padalka. Unlike Kelly and Kornienko, it was always intended that Padalka would return to Earth in September and that another cosmonaut, Sergei Volkov, would replace him for the second half of their year-long mission. The Soyuz TMA-18M mission was duly launched on 2 September, carrying Volkov, together with Kazakhstan’s Aidyn Aimbetov and Denmark’s first astronaut, Andreas Mogensen. After a week working together as a nine-man crew, Padalka, Aimbetov, and Mogensen returned to Earth aboard Soyuz TMA-16M on 11 September, leaving Kelly in command of Expedition 45. Yesterday afternoon (Tuesday), Kelly and Kornienko passed 200 days since their launch and, next weekend, will also pass the 60-percent-complete mark of their long mission.

As Kelly surpasses Mike Fincke tomorrow morning, it will be a significant step in the United States’ effort to gather further data in support of long-term space missions before heading beyond Earth orbit in the next decade. By the time he returns to Earth on 2 March 2016, it is anticipated that he will have accrued 342 days in orbit on this mission and—when one includes Kelly’s two previous shuttle flights and a five-month ISS increment—will end his fourth orbital voyage with a career total of 522 days. That is equivalent to 18 months of his life and will comfortably position him as the most flight-experienced U.S. astronaut in history.

However, although Kelly’s single-flight U.S. achievement is expected to stand for some time into the future, his cumulative career record may not endure for quite so long. Fellow NASA fliers Jeff Williams and Peggy Whitson, both of whom already have a pair of six-month missions under their belts, are deep in training for their third expeditions to the ISS and stand to challenge Kelly’s cumulative record in 2016-2017. Williams, who has accrued more than 361 days from his three prior missions, is slated to fly for 173 days during Expeditions 47/48 next March-September—according to NASA Flight Planning Integration Panel (FPIP) documentation—which should allow him to slightly pip Kelly at a career total of 534 days. And former Chief Astronaut Whitson, who became the first female skipper of the ISS in 2007-2008, is provisionally scheduled to fly for 164 days on Expeditions 50/51 between November 2016 and May 2017. When combined with her current total of 377 days, this should push Whitson past Kelly and Williams to the top of the list with 541 days in space across her career.



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