At 4:56 a.m. EDT tomorrow (Wednesday, 24 August), NASA astronaut Jeff Williams—the incumbent skipper of Expedition 48, aboard the International Space Station (ISS)—will officially become the United States’ most seasoned spacefarer. He will eclipse the previous record-holder, Scott Kelly, as he passes a cumulative total of 520 days, 10 hours, and 30 minutes in space, across four flights. Williams, who last week also became the United States’ oldest spacewalker, is scheduled to return to Earth late on 6 September, wrapping up a career total of 534 days in space. When placed into context, this elevates Williams from his current place as the United States’ second most-experienced astronaut into first place and on the “world list” from No. 19 to No. 14. Standing ahead of him are a cadre of Soviet and Russian cosmonauts, with 878-day veteran Gennadi Padalka topping the list.
The past year has been an impressive one for U.S. space accomplishments, even as NASA remains wholly reliant upon Russia for providing the sole means to deliver its astronauts into orbit. With the space shuttle fleet having retired in July 2011, it will be at least August 2017 before the first Commercial Crew partner—likely SpaceX—transports the next U.S. astronauts into space, from U.S. soil, and aboard a U.S.-built spacecraft.
Yet the one-year mission completed in March 2016 by Scott Kelly brought with it a full raft of achievements and national records. Last October, Kelly passed Mike Fincke’s 381 days of cumulative experience and Mike Lopez-Alegria’s 215-day accomplishment for the longest single flight ever performed by an American. He also became the first NASA astronaut to command more than one ISS expedition and, on 21 January 2016, became the first U.S. citizen to pass 300 days in space on a single mission. He later hit a cumulative 500 days across his four-flight career on 10 February, before returning to Earth on 1 March. All told, Kelly secured over 340 days on a single mission and 520 days across his career.
At the time of his launch into space, aboard Soyuz TMA-20M, on 18 March, Jeff Williams already sat in sixth place on the U.S. list, with a cumulative 362 days in space and veteran astronauts Scott Kelly, Mike Fincke, Peggy Whitson, British-born Mike Foale, and Don Pettit ahead of him. However, it did not take long for Williams to climb up the U.S. experience table. By month’s end, he had passed Pettit and Foale to reach fourth place and by the close of April had also eclipsed Whitson and Fincke to enter second place, behind Kelly. It was quite an achievement for a man who became the first U.S. Mission Specialist member of his astronaut class to be assigned to a shuttle flight, who became the first American to fly three discrete long-duration space voyages and who—last Friday—became the second-oldest person in history and the oldest-ever American to perform an EVA.
Across more than five decades of U.S. human space exploration, Americans have secured many records, although the Soviet Union and Russia have been permanently at the forefront of long-duration spaceflight for almost four decades. Right from the start, with Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering orbital flight in April 1961, the Soviets had the edge in spending the longest time in space. Gagarin’s 107-minute orbital voyage was countered only by the 15-minute suborbital “hops” of Al Shepard and Gus Grissom, whilst the four days spent in space by Andrian Nikolayev in August 1962 and by Valeri Bykovsky in June 1963 were met only by the multi-hour flights of John Glenn and Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra. Even the final, day-long mission of Project Mercury, flown by Gordo Cooper in May 1963, was barely a third of the duration of the longest Soviet flight.
Still, all six piloted Mercury missions saw each of their astronauts successively secure the U.S. title for the longest cumulative time in space. That title was pushed further in August 1965, when Cooper commanded the eight-day Gemini V mission, thereby securing for himself a U.S. record—and, for the first time, a world record—of almost nine days in space, across his career. Yet as America surged ahead with Project Gemini, Cooper’s world record did not last long. In December 1965, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell flew for almost 14 days, becoming joint record-holders by default. Eleven months later, Lovell commanded the four-day Gemini XII, surpassing Borman to seize the U.S. record (and world record) of almost 18 days in space. He pushed this lead yet further in December 1968, when he added another six days to his tally on Apollo 8, followed by an additional six days in command of the ill-fated Apollo 13 in April 1970. Closing out his astronaut career, Lovell led the United States and the world with just a few hours shy of 30 days in space.
Although the Soviets flew several long-duration missions in the following years, none of them challenged Lovell’s empirical career total. It was not until the 28-day opening expedition to the Skylab space station in mid-1973 that U.S. astronauts again pushed ahead. Commander Pete Conrad had already accrued 21 days from his three previous missions and, when combined with his Skylab flight, moved into first place in the world with a little more than 49 days. Three months later, Al Bean—commanding the second Skylab crew—eclipsed Conrad’s achievement by totaling 69.5 days across his career, whilst in February 1974 the station’s final crew all secured 84 days in orbit. Astronauts Gerry Carr, Ed Gibson, and Bill Pogue went on to hold the U.S. record for more than two decades.
However, they held the world record for a little less than four years, as the Soviets rallied with the onset of a succession of long-duration flights aboard their Salyut 6 and 7 and Mir space stations from the late 1970s. Starting with the 96-day mission of cosmonauts Yuri Romanenko and Georgi Grechko, secured in early 1978, the Soviets progressed from 4.5 months in orbit to six months, then from seven to eight months, from 11 months to a full year and, in March 1995, to the current world record of almost 438 days by Valeri Polyakov. Since 1978, no American has come close to surpassing the Soviet and Russian lead and, even as Williams secures the new U.S. record tomorrow, even he will rank no higher than 17th on the world list. By the time he returns to Earth on 6 September, with a career total of 534 days, Williams will have elevated himself to 14th place.
In spite of this, American astronauts began setting national spaceflight endurance records again in mid-1995, when Norm Thagard spent four months aboard Mir, finally exceeding the achievement of Carr’s Skylab crew and establishing a new U.S. career total of 140 days. A year later, in August 1996, astronaut Shannon Lucid flew for 188 days and—when combined with the totals from her four prior shuttle missions—she had spent over 223 days away from the Home Planet.
This was also surpassed in June 2002, aboard the ISS, when Expedition 4 astronaut Carl Walz beat Lucid’s U.S. career record and reached 230 days by the time he returned to terra firma. Eighteen months later, in December 2003, as NASA and the world mourned the loss of Shuttle Columbia, Expedition 8 Commander Mike Foale surpassed Walz and had accrued 373 days across a six-flight career by the time he returned to Earth in April 2004. This record was itself passed by Expedition 16’s Peggy Whitson in April 2008, who amassed nearly 377 days, and in May 2011 by Mike Fincke, who reached 382 days. Fincke’s record stood for over four years, before falling to Scott Kelly last October.
As Jeff Williams passes Kelly’s U.S. record of 520 days, 10 hours, and 30 minutes at 4:56 a.m. EDT tomorrow, he can perhaps reflect that in the same period of time—21 years—that it took for the final Skylab record to be exceeded, Americans have gone on to advance their national spaceflight endurance expertise by 370 percent. Assuming Williams touches down in Kazakhstan on time, at about 7:14 a.m. local time on Wednesday, 7 September (9:14 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, 6 September), he will have accrued some 534 days, 2 hours, and 49 minutes across his career. This will position him in 14th place on the world list, ahead of Oleg Kononenko and just behind Fyodor Yurchikhin.
It remains to be seen how long Williams’ record may last. Veteran astronaut Peggy Whitson will become only the second American to chalk up a third long-duration flight, when she launches aboard Soyuz MS-03 on 16 November 2016. With an anticipated landing date of 15 May 2017, Whitson may add an extra 180 days to her present 377-day tally, thereby positioning her in first place on the U.S. list at 557 days … and possibly in eighth place on the world list. That, of course, remains to be seen, but we can be certain that a year from now, three Americans will sit high on the list of the most experienced spacefarers in history.