With just one day of their (almost) year-long mission remaining, U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko—together with their Soyuz TMA-18M crewmate Sergei Volkov—officially wrapped up Expedition 46 on Monday afternoon. Kelly, who has commanded the International Space Station (ISS) since September 2015, transferred authority of the orbital outpost to fellow NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, who will lead Expedition 47 through early June. Present plans call for Kelly, Kornienko, and Volkov to board Soyuz TMA-18M later today (Tuesday, 1 March). Hatch closure is planned for 4:40 p.m. EST, with the physical separation of the spacecraft from the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module anticipated at 8:05 p.m. Assuming all goes well, this will produce a touchdown in north-central Kazakhstan at 11:27:24 p.m. EST on Tuesday, 1 March (10:27:24 a.m. local time on Tuesday, 2 March).
In more than 15 years of continuous ISS expedition crew operations, it has become traditional for incoming and outgoing commanders to share a handshake and a few words as authority passes from one to the next. Yesterday’s ceremony was no different. With the outgoing crew clad in black shirts and the new Expedition 47 crew—which, in addition to Kopra, also comprises Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Britain’s Tim Peake—in green shirts, the six-strong team gathered in the U.S. Destiny lab.
“The Change of Command ceremony on the space station means a number of things,” Kelly told his terrestrial audience, in a televised broadcast Monday afternoon. “One thing it means is that some of us—the guys in the black shirts here—are going home tomorrow, which, of course, is always bittersweet, when you leave this incredible place.” For his current expedition, Kelly has spent all but about 11 hours—discounting the six-hour launch and “fast rendezvous” on 26/27 March 2015, together with tonight’s 3.5-hour return to Earth and a short, 25-minute “hop” when his crew transferred the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft between docking ports, last August—of his 340-day mission physically connected to the station. Added to that tally, he spent 157 days aboard the sprawling outpost between October 2010 and March 2011, during his Expedition 25/26 increment, as well as a little under nine days during his stint in command of the STS-118 shuttle mission in August 2007.
All told, that leaves Kelly with about 506 cumulative days aboard the ISS, more than any other U.S. astronaut. In fact, Kelly’s nearest U.S. rival is fellow astronaut Mike Fincke, who has spent about 373 cumulative days aboard the ISS during two increments and a visiting shuttle flight. It leaves Kelly as the seventh most-experienced ISS veteran, after six Russian cosmonauts, topped by world record-holder Gennadi Padalka, who has spent about 674 days of his cumulative 878-day career total aboard the multi-national outpost.
Since the arrival of U.S. astronaut Bill Shepherd and his Russian crewmates, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev, on 2 November 2000, to kick off Expedition 1, numerous changes of command have occurred between various nations. As well as being a bittersweet experience, Kelly recounted yesterday, it reflected a change of authority aboard the space station and a change of responsibility. “There needs to be one person, at least, on board, that’s ultimately responsible, and that’s why we have this change of command ceremony. A really smart person said to me one time: ‘Teamwork makes the dream work in spaceflight.’ And spaceflight is the biggest team sport there is, and it’s incredibly important that we all work together to make what is seemingly impossible, possible.”
Without further ado, Kelly passed the microphone over to Kopra, who has occupied the station as a member of Expedition 46 since mid-December. Retired U.S. Navy Captain Kelly then shook hands with retired U.S. Army Colonel Kopra, before the new commander of the greatest engineering project in history spoke. “It’s kinda hard to believe that we’ve been here for two-and-a-half months and it’s only a small portion of Scott and Misha’s time here,” Kopra began, motioning to Kelly and Kornienko. “But I have to say it’s an honor and a privilege to assume command of the International Space Station.” He retained specific praise for Kelly, whom he thanked for his leadership and for being “such a great role model to us, in every aspect: as a crew member and as a space station commander.” He thanked Kornienko and Volkov, too, for their “cameraderie and friendship,” before adding that his own crew are “very excited about continuing our efforts here to produce world-class science on this orbiting laboratory.” Their Expedition 47 crew is expected to be restored to six-man strength on 19 March, when Soyuz TMA-20M arrives, bearing U.S. astronaut Jeff Williams and Russian cosmonauts Alexei Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka.
Including Expedition 1, and with Kopra’s Expedition 47 now underway, the tally stands as Russians and Americans having each commanded 22 ISS increments, with the International Partners (IPs) of the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) each boasting one command apiece. Breaking down those numbers, Russia’s Gennadi Padalka has commanded a record-breaking four ISS expeditions, with fellow cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin in second place on three commands and Pavel Vinogradov and Oleg Kotov having commanded the station twice. During his time at the helm of Expeditions 45 and 46, Scott Kelly became the first U.S. astronaut to command the ISS on more than one occasion, with Jeff Williams and Peggy Whitson expected to likewise on the upcoming Expeditions 48 and 51. Additionally, America can boast the very first ISS Commander and the first female ISS Commander.
“The decision as to who commands the station is made by the Multilateral Crew Operations Panel (MCOP) of the International Partner representatives,” NASA’s Rob Navias told AmericaSpace recently. “More often than not, the command is rotated from an American commander to a Russian commander, and vice-versa, but it is not a set rule.” He noted that “by agreement, either the U.S. or Russia will have consecutive commands.” In fact, with Kopra set to command Expedition 47 through early June, and Jeff Williams due to pick up the baton of leading Expedition 48 through September, the ISS will see an American at the helm of the station for an entire year, for the first time. Russia, by contrast, has seen its cosmonauts command the ISS continuously for ten months, from May 2013 through March 2014, during Expeditions 36-38.
In recent days, Kelly has taken to Twitter as he finally stopped “counting up” his time in space and began “counting down” through the final 10 days (and final wakeup) of his and Kornienko’s long mission. “#Countdown We’re down to a wakeup,” he told his 920,000 followers late Monday. “#Earth. I’m coming for you tomorrow!” He then closed off with his trademark #GoodNight from @Space_Station, together with hashtag YearInSpace. However, Kelly has juxtaposed his space-based tweets with “throwbacks” from his last days on Earth, in the spring of 2015, including a final image of himself at his desk, proudly displaying an “I’ll Be Back in 365 Days” placard.
With their return to Earth timed for later tonight EST, Soyuz TMA-18M will alight on the desolate steppe of north-central Kazakhstan about 2.5 hours after local sunrise. And after living and working together in space for almost a year, and having trained together for more than two years prior to launch, Kelly and Kornienko have joked in recent days about their first words upon completing their marathon mission. By the time they alight on terra firma, they will have spent more than 340 days physically detached from the Home Planet and will have completed the fourth-longest single spaceflight in human history. Phrases such as “We Did It!” are near the top of their list of possible first words. However, both men are keenly aware, as Kelly explained at yesterday’s change of command ceremony, that their success was a reflection of teamwork and that they stood upon the shoulders of thousands of people around the world who put their historic mission together.
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