Having already surpassed fellow astronaut Mike Fincke to become the United States’ most flight-seasoned spacefarer, earlier this month, Expedition 45 Commander Scott Kelly—the incumbent skipper of the International Space Station (ISS)—will pass another national record at 12:04 a.m. EDT tomorrow (Thursday, 29 October), when he eclipses Mike Lopez-Alegria by flying the longest single space mission ever attempted by an American citizen. In doing so, Kelly and his fellow One-Year crewman, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, will enter eighth place on the world list of the most extreme-duration space missions of all time, sitting behind one Salyut 7 and six Mir increments from the 1980s and 1990s. With near-perfect timing, Kelly and Expedition 45 crewmate Kjell Lindgren are also scheduled to perform their first career EVA today (Wednesday). In doing so, and by default, Kelly will secure another national accolade, by becoming the first American citizen to perform a spacewalk so deep into his mission.
Launched aboard Soyuz TMA-16M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, last 26/27 March, Kelly was accompanied for the journey uphill by Kornienko and fellow Russian cosmonaut Gennadi Padalka. Upon arrival at the ISS, they formed the second half 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.
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, to become the first American astronaut ever to lead two ISS increments.
Two weeks ago, on 13 October, Kelly became only the second American in history, after Lopez-Alegria, to have logged more than 200 days in space on a single mission. And less than 24 hours after that, at 5:02 a.m. EDT on the 14th—counting his two shuttle flights and a previous long-duration ISS increment—he surpassed Mike Fincke’s career total of 381 days, 15 hours, and 11 minutes, set back in May 2011, to become the most experienced U.S. astronaut. As Kelly passes Lopez-Alegria’s all-time national record of 215 days, 8 hours, and 22 minutes on a single mission at 12:04 a.m. EDT tomorrow (Thursday), he and Kornienko will enter eighth place on the list of the longest single space missions ever undertaken by human beings. Scheduled to return to Earth in March 2016, after 342 days, the two men are expected to wrap up their lengthy voyage by positioning themselves jointly in fourth place, surpassed only by a trio of ultra-long-haul Mir missions: the 366 days achieved by Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov in December 1988, the 379 days reached by Sergei Avdeyev in August 1999, and the current world record of 437 days, set by Valeri Polyakov in March 1995.
Aside from setting this raft of U.S. endurance records, until this week Kelly had yet to perform an EVA. Original plans called for several spacewalks during his year-long mission, the first of which was planned for mid-August, with Kjell Lindgren, to install and outfit the first of two critical International Docking Adapters (IDA-1) at the forward interface of the space station’s Harmony node. When activated, IDA-1 would provide the primary docking port for future SpaceX Dragon V-2 and Boeing Starliner Commercial Crew vehicles. In readiness for this work, the station’s Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) was moved from the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node and repositioned onto the Tranquility node on 27 May, but SpaceX’s CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship was lost during ascent on 28 June and IDA-1 was destroyed. As recently outlined by AmericaSpace’s Talia Landman, the identical IDA-2—which would have been installed onto the space-facing (or “zenith”) port of Harmony, thereby providing a backup Commercial Crew interface—will now be advanced to become the “new” IDA-1, whilst a set of structural spares are expected to be rebuilt as a “new” IDA-3 in the coming months. With SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster expected to return to flight as soon as mid-November, it is anticipated that IDA-2 will ride to the ISS aboard the CRS-9 Dragon, perhaps as soon as March 2016.
In addition to their IDA-1 installation tasks, it was expected that Kelly would have also participated in EVAs to relocate Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-3 from its current perch on the Tranquility node to its Commercial Crew location at Harmony zenith and to outfit the IDA-2 port after its delivery to the station, originally planned for December. With all of these tasks now postponed, Kelly and Lindgren can expect two EVAs during their increment, the first of which is scheduled to occur today (28 October). As described in a recent AmericaSpace article, the spacewalkers will tend to multiple tasks: adding a thermal cover to the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), tying down some Multi-Layered Insulation (MLI) on one of the station’s four Main Bus Switching Units (MBSUs) and performing further lubrication work on the Latching End Effector (LEE) of the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm, which was previously tended by Expedition 42’s Terry Virts during EVA-30 in February 2015.
Performing an EVA so deep into his mission will provide Kelly with yet another U.S. record, surpassing the previous accomplishment of Rick Mastracchio, who was 167 days into his Expedition 38/39 increment when he participated in U.S. EVA-26 in April 2014. However, it will not represent an empirical world record, for year-long Russian cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev previously completed a spacewalk outside Mir in July 1999, by which time he had been in orbit for 349 days.
As the year wears on, and with his place at the top of the U.S. long-duration list long-since secured, Kelly will also make inroads into positioning himself high on the list of the most experienced spacefarers of all time. By New Year’s Eve, he will have accrued a career total of 458 days in orbit, across four space missions, which will place him in 18th place, out of more than 500 souls who have voyaged beyond Earth’s “sensible” atmosphere, since the pioneering flight of Yuri Gagarin in April 1961. And if the ISS flight schedule holds, by the time Kelly returns to Earth on 2 March 2016, he will have reached a cumulative 522 days in space, moving into 17th place, behind such luminaries as single-flight record-holder Valeri Polyakov and career-total record-holder Gennadi Padalka.