You might be forgiven for thinking that one chair was missing at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, on the afternoon of Wednesday, 30 November, for only two seats are reserved for the next crew of the International Space Station (ISS). As reported previously by AmericaSpace, Russia recently decided to reduce the number of cosmonauts aboard the station in 2017 from three to two; in part due to ongoing problems getting its long-delayed Nauka (“Science”) laboratory module ready for flight. Scheduled to launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 27 March aboard Soyuz MS-04, veteran Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and “rookie” NASA flyer Jack Fischer will aim to perform the first “fast rendezvous” of a piloted vehicle in over a year and their six-month expedition will mark them out as the smallest ISS crew of the decade so far.
Yurchikhin and Fischer will also be launching several months sooner than previously manifested. Announced by NASA in August 2015, they were teamed with Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli and anticipated a launch aboard Soyuz MS-05 from Baikonur in May 2017. They would form the second half of Expedition 52, joining Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Misurkin and Nikolai Tikhonov and NASA’s Mark Vande Hei, before rotating into Expedition 53, under Yurchikhin’s command, through their return to Earth in the late fall of 2017. However, delays to the launch of the Nauka module—coupled with a reduction in the number of Progress cargo ships from four to three, annually—precipitated last month’s announcement that Russian crews-in-training would be reduced in number.
This spelled particularly bad news for “rookie” cosmonauts Tikhonov and Ivan Vagner, who were removed from their spots aboard Soyuz MS-04 in March 2017 and Soyuz MS-06 in September 2017. And their departure meant that the critical, left-seat role of “Flight Engineer-1”—a role requiring an in-depth knowledge of Soyuz spacecraft systems—was rendered vacant. Vande Hei had previously trained for the right-seat Flight Engineer-2 role and with this significant crew change more time was needed for him to prepare for his new Flight Engineer-1 duties. As a result, Vande Hei’s launch with Misurkin was moved from March to September 2017 and the pair will now launch aboard Soyuz MS-06.
Jack Fischer, on the other hand, had trained from the outset as a Flight Engineer-1 and it made more sense to move him and Yurchikhin forward in the manifest to take Soyuz MS-04 in March 2017. With their former crewmate Nespoli having been moved to a later flight, the third seat will have no liner, but will be occupied by cargo. Yurchikhin and Fischer have decided to nickname the seat “Paolo, Jr.” For most of the Soyuz training, Yurchikhin and Fischer worked together as a two-man crew and would have been joined by Nespoli, for a couple of “sims”, ahead of their final exams. “So there’s not much interaction with the third person,” he told AmericaSpace’s Michael Galindo, after today’s news conference. “That being said, it’s an important interaction. Because they’re not diving into the nitty-gritty of what we’re doing, they … can give you that big picture that you may otherwise miss.” Another thing that they will miss will be Nespoli’s long arms, which were previously put to great use for hatch operations.
Since Nespoli was a specialist on Japan’s Kibo and Europe’s Columbus labs, his role has been newly picked up by Fischer and “condensed programs” from both the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have been correspondingly “shoehorned” into his training. This, concluded Fischer, was “not too horrible” and he and Yurchikhin now have several more months before they are due to fly. Their final exams entail a full day in the mockup of the station’s Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and another full day in the cramped confines of the Soyuz trainer.
The movement of astronauts and cosmonauts in 2017 has led to several other crew changes. Russian cosmonaut Sergei Ryazansky and U.S. astronaut Randy Bresnik (also fully Flight Engineer-1-trained) were moved forward from their original November 2017 launch on Soyuz MS-07 to fly Soyuz MS-05 in May. Joining them aboard the “new” Soyuz MS-05 would be Paolo Nespoli. The advancement of the Ryazansky/Bresnik duo also takes advantage of their Soyuz training and provides U.S. astronaut Scott Tingle with additional time to train for a Flight Engineer-1 spot in the fall of 2017. “A huge difference, and a lot of training” was Fischer’s summary of the transition from the right-seat Flight Engineer-2 position to the left-side Flight Engineer-1.
Opening today’s news conference, both Yurchikhin and Fischer paid tribute to more than four decades of on-off U.S. and Russian co-operation in space, from the Apollo-Soyuz era to the present day. They have developed an informal crew patch and their motto of “One Team, Exploring Together” underscores this sense of co-operation.
Snowy-haired and moustachioed Yurchikhin, who turns 58 on 3 January, will become the second-oldest Russian ever to venture into space, as well as only the eighth cosmonaut to record as many as five discrete missions. He is affectionately nicknamed “The Boss” by Fischer, who jokingly compared them to an old married couple, so closely had they worked together over the last two years. Born in the Black Sea coastal city of Batumi, in Georgia, Yurchikhin compared his birthplace to Houston, Texas, in terms of its multi-national nature. At high school, a teacher asked him what he wanted to do for a profession. Yurchikhin’s initial response was to be a goalkeeper for the Soviet national football team, but when his teacher advised him that football was no profession, he proclaimed another career goal: that of cosmonaut. After high school in 1976, he entered Moscow Aviation Institute—“because a lot of Russian cosmonauts finished this institute, too”—and graduated as a mechanical engineer in 1983.
Yurchikhin worked for more than a decade in Russia’s Mission Control Center, near Star City. His work was varied, focusing on scheduling and daily plans for data from the Salyut 7 space station and, later, Mir. He also served as a lead engineer during the shuttle-Mir program in the mid-to-late 1990s. Selected for cosmonaut training in July 1997, Yurchikhin qualified in November 1999. Two years later, he completed a doctorate in economics from Moscow Service State University and in August 2001 was named to his first spaceflight, as a Mission Specialist on STS-112. Launched in October 2002, Yurchikhin and his five U.S. crewmates aboard Shuttle Atlantis delivered, installed, and activated the S-1 segment of the Integrated Truss Structure (ITS).
After STS-112, Yurchikhin went on to record no fewer than three long-duration ISS increments. He commanded Expedition 15 from April-October 2007 and launched again in June 2010, initially forming part of Expedition 24, before rotating into Expedition 25 through November. Yurchikhin’s fourth mission took place in May-November 2013, during which he commanded Expedition 37. Returning to Earth, he had logged over 537 days in orbit and presently sits as the world’s 13th most experienced spacefarer. By the time he returns from his Expedition 51/52 increment in late September 2017—having added a further six months to his tally—Yurchikhin will position himself in sixth place on the world list. Additionally, he has logged almost 52 spacewalking hours in eight EVAs, and in May 2013 he recorded the shortest-ever interval between launch and docking at a space station. Speaking to AmericaSpace’s Michael Galindo, the ebullient Yurchikhin described some of the differences he has seen over the last 14 years, as the ISS evolved, but in summary he could sum it up in just five words: “Each time, it’s my home.”
By contrast, U.S. Air Force Col. Jack Fischer will be embarking on the first mission of his astronaut career. Born into a construction family in Louisville, Colo., on 23 January 1974, his interest in space exploration was piqued during a visit to his grandfather, aged six. It was his family which instilled “the work ethic and sense of team that have guided my life.” Fischer attended high school in Lafayette, in his home state, before entering the Air Force Academy to study astronautical engineering. Upon receipt of his bachelor’s degree in 1996, Fischer was sent to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a master’s credential in aeronautics and astronautics. He graduated in 1998 and was detailed to Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas. Fischer went on to train in the F-15E Strike Eagle fighter and flew operationally in Southwest Asia, supporting Operations Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch over Iraq and Afghanistan, in the months after 9/11.
Fischer attended Test Pilot School (TPS) at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., graduating in 2004, before moving into F-15 and weapons testing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. After a spell as a project pilot working with the Small Diameter Bomb—certified for test in September 2005 and which entered operational service on the F-15E in the fall of 2006—he returned to Edwards to test the F-22 Raptor, the world’s only air-dominance fighter. Fischer was selected for Air Command and Staff College in Washington, D.C., as a Strategic Policy Intern in 2008 and served a pair of six-month tours at the Pentagon. He was chosen by NASA as an astronaut candidate in June 2009 and after completing initial training in 2011 worked in the Mission Control Center (MCC) in Houston, Texas, as a Capcom. Fischer has also supported the Soyuz, ISS and Exploration branches of the Astronaut Office.
After launching from Baikonur on about 27 March 2017, it is expected that Yurchikhin and Fischer will follow a four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile, setting them up to dock Soyuz MS-04 at the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module a few hours into their mission. Previous fast-rendezvous crews typically reached the ISS after six hours and four orbits, but the advanced technology aboard the new Soyuz-MS vehicle raises the possibility that Yurchikhin and Fischer might dock in just 4.5 hours and three orbits. “The Soyuz-MS has a new system, which is basically satellite navigation. And so it can use signals from GPS and GLONASS satellites to determine the state vector, without help from the ground. What that allows you to do is, before, we would have to wait until we came all the way back around, over Russia, check the state vector, and then do the ‘burns’. Now you don’t have to.” In essence, the crew would be “Gettin’ the spacecraft to do all the thinkin’ on its own.”
The new arrivals will be welcomed by Expedition 51 Commander Peggy Whitson and her crew of Frenchman Thomas Pesquet and Russia’s Oleg Novitsky, forming a five-person increment for the first time since Expedition 22 in spring 2010. According to Fischer, the opportunity to work with seasoned spacefarers Whitson and Yurchikhin will be “the Oreo of awesomeness,” as between them the two veterans have seen virtually every phase of the two-decade construction and utilization of the ISS.
He remembered some words from Whitson: that spaceflight is a gift and Fischer looks forward to enjoying the experience. Even fixing the toilet—because “it’s a space toilet; you’re in space, and you look round the corner, and there’s the Earth!”—promises to be an exciting opportunity. And despite Yurchikhin’s assertion that a first-time flyer is always “wide-eyed” upon reaching orbit for the first time, there is one item that Fischer hopes to accomplish during Expedition 51/52: an EVA.
According to present projections, a pair of U.S. spacewalks (EVAs 40 and 41) are scheduled for No Earlier Than (NET) March, together with the relocation of Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-3 from its current perch on the Tranquility node to its final location on the zenith port of the Harmony node. This will allow PMA-3 to eventually be outfitted with an International Docking Adapter (IDA), ahead of service as a backup port for Commercial Crew vehicles.
Resupply missions to the space station in 2017 are presently in flux, with SpaceX remaining tight-lipped about when its Dragon will return to flight. The most recent Dragon was last July’s delivery of the IDA-1, but the on-pad failure of an Upgraded Falcon 9 booster on 1 September has forced the Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch services provider to stand down until the root cause is identified and resolved. NASA’s second Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) provider, the Dulles, Va.-headquartered Orbital ATK, plans three Cygnus cargo missions, beginning with OA-7 in March, which will be boosted into orbit from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V. Yet perhaps the most significant arrival of Yurchikhin and Fischer’s increment is the scheduled mid-May arrival of SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon, flying its inaugural mission in an uncrewed capacity. Although its schedule remains dependent upon SpaceX’s return to flight, a successful demonstration of the Crew Dragon will clear a major hurdle as the Commercial Crew effort gears up for its first piloted mission.
With the return to Earth of Whitson, Novitsky, and Pesquet in mid-May, Yurchikhin will assume command and Expedition 52 will commence. He and Fischer will operate the station as a two-man crew—the smallest ISS increment of this decade so far—for two weeks before Soyuz MS-05 launches from Baikonur on 29 May, carrying Ryazansky, Bresnik, and Nespoli. Although the ISS functioned at two-person capability for more than three years in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, it has nominally operated with a minimum crew of three personnel at any one time. The only exception came for a few weeks in December 2009, when the outgoing Expedition 21 increment the departure of U.S. astronaut Nicole Stott briefly left the station with a two-man crew of Jeff Williams and Maksim Surayev.
By complete contrast, there remains a possibility that a fee-paying Spaceflight Participant (SFP) “tourist” may join Misurkin and Vande Hei, filling the third seat aboard Soyuz MS-06, which is presently scheduled for launch in the second week of September 2017. If this does occur, it will require the first “direct handover” of ISS crew operations in two years. Since the tourist will require a seat on a returning Soyuz after about 10 days, Yurchikhin and Fischer would return to Earth around the end of September. The presence of the five-strong Expedition 52 crew, together with Misurkin, Vande Hei, and a possible tourist, would bring the ISS population temporarily to eight people.
With thanks to my AmericaSpace colleague Michael Galindo for the photography and one-on-one interviews which supported this article.