A trio of space explorers, who six months ago could not have imagined they would ever be flying together, gathered yesterday (Wednesday, 10 May) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, to discuss their forthcoming voyage to the International Space Station (ISS). Seasoned Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Misurkin and a pair of NASA astronauts—first-time flyer Mark Vande Hei and shuttle and ISS veteran Joe Acaba—spoke at length about the five months they will spend aboard the multi-national orbiting outpost from September 2017 through February 2018.
As detailed previously by AmericaSpace, the decision to include additional U.S. astronauts came about partly in response to delays to Russia’s “Nauka” (“Science”) Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module (MLM), which is now unlikely to launch anytime before the summer of 2018. This and the already-planned reduction in the number of Progress cargo ships from four to three, per annum, raised questions about the need for a full complement of three Russian cosmonauts aboard the station for increments through 2017 and into 2018.
Originally, Misurkin, Vande Hei and “rookie” Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Tikhonov were targeted to launch aboard Soyuz MS-04 in March 2017. However, Tikhonov was dropped from the crew, requiring Vande Hei—who had previously trained to occupy the right-hand Flight Engineer-2 seat—to re-train for the more systems-intensive Flight Engineer-1 position. The need to re-train him for these new duties led to Misurkin and Vande Hei’s launch slipping into September 2017 on Soyuz MS-06, whilst other crews were moved forward on the manifest. This left Misurkin and Vande Hei as a two-member crew, with early expectations that the third seat aboard the Soyuz might go to a fee-paying Spaceflight Participant (SFP) or occupied by cargo.
Speaking to AmericaSpace’s Michael Galindo, Vande Hei outlined the process by which he learned of the change to his crew and the deletion of Tikhonov. They were at Baikonur, last fall, in their capacity as backups for the Soyuz MS-02 crew, and during this “slow time” Vande Hei took the opportunity to begin to get “spun-up” on the new training. He glowingly described Tikhonov as “very technologically savvy” and outlined the Flight Engineer-1 role as especially critical; in essence, it is a second-in-command role, necessitating him to manually rendezvous and dock with the ISS if Misurkin was unable to do so, as well as executing the deorbit “burn” to return to Earth. Ordinarily, transitioning from the Flight Engineer-2 role into Flight Engineer-1 needed six additional months of training.
For Misurkin, who served as Flight Engineer-1 on his first flight in March-September 2013, it was an ideal opportunity to share his experience. In discussion with Michael Galindo, he recalled some words of advice from his former crewmate Chris Cassidy, who told him “Do not hurry” and to always work through tasks slowly and systematically. Misurkin passed this advice onto Vande Hei…to which his new Flight Engineer-1 approached his role deliberately and methodically and wryly dubbed the crew a “Team of Turtles”.
However, last year’s award of five Soyuz seats from Rocket and Space Corp. (RSC) Energia to Boeing—as part of the $350 million settlement—ultimately resulted in a $373.5 million contract modification with NASA, which saw the space agency take one of those seats in September 2017, another in March 2018 and a potential for three others in the 2019 timeframe. As well as providing a chance to buy Soyuz seats at the bargain-basement rate of just $74.7 million, far lower than its previous direct contracts with Russia, this also enabled NASA to hedge against the risk of further delays to the already beleagured Commercial Crew program. In mid-March, veteran astronaut Joe Acaba was named as a “short-notice” crew member for the third seat aboard Soyuz MS-06, joining Misurkin and Vande Hei for their long mission.
Having previously served as head of ISS Operations in the Astronaut Office, Acaba was asked by Michael Galindo if this experience had factored into his assignment. “We all have different jobs in the office,” Acaba replied. “I think me having that job kept me current on ISS operations. It also kept me current on different types of training, so I don’t think it was the job itself that led to the flight assignment. I think our boss, Chris Cassidy, probably took that into consideration on someone who has flown before and has current ISS ops experience.” Acaba acquiesced that many factors go into the flight assignments equation, but that his previous role and experience would have been “beneficial”. He described his days as “busy”, but noted that it was easier progressing through a training flow for the second or time. Moreover, with Vande Hei trained as a “specialist” in U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS), the pair have been able to divide up their responsibilities and allow Acaba to fit the requisite training into his own compressed flow.
“On my last flight,” he said, “being the only American on the Soyuz, I was a specialist in all of the [USOS] areas, because there would be a time period where I would be the only American on-board. Now, I know I’m going to be for sure with Mark Vande Hei the entire time, so now we’ve been able to split some of the duties where it’s not required for me to be a specialist. That has allowed them to compress the schedule.” That said, Acaba would be fully trained in aspects of safety, robotics and EVA operations.
Gathering at JSC yesterday, the trio of spacefarers offered an irreverent look at the five months they will spend in orbit. Current plans are for Soyuz MS-06 to launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 13 September, completing a same-day rendezvous and docking with the space station, about six hours and four orbits later. They will be welcomed aboard by the incumbent Expedition 53 crew of Commander Randy “Komrade” Bresnik of NASA, Russia’s Sergei Ryazansky and Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, who will have been aboard the ISS since late July. The six men will work together for up to three months, before Bresnik’s trio return to Earth—likely in the early-to-mid-December timeframe—and a new crew of Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, NASA’s Scott Tingle and Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai launches aboard Soyuz MS-07 later in December.
Under Misurkin’s command, Expedition 54 will be in full swing. Turning 40 years old on 23 September, the former Russian Air Force lieutenant-colonel will become one of the youngest spacefarers ever to command the ISS. Born in Yershichi, in the southern part of Russia’s Smolensk Oblast, Misurkin completed vocational school in Oryol and entered the Kacha High Air Force Pilot School, graduating in 1998. A year later, he earned a gold medal as a pilot-engineer at the Armavir Military Aviation Institute, then served as a pilot-instructor and air flight commander of the 627th Guards Pilot Training Regiment at the Krasnodar Military Aviation Institute.
An accomplished instructor pilot, parachutist and military scuba diver, Misurkin had logged over 1,060 flying hours when he was selected for cosmonaut training in October 2006. Qualified as a test-cosmonaut in June 2009, he underwent advanced ISS training and was assigned to the backup crew for Soyuz TMA-06M, launched in October 2012 and rotated into the prime crew for Soyuz MS-08M, launched on 28 March 2013. During his first space mission, Misurkin spent 166 days in low-Earth orbit and completed three periods of Extravehicular Activity (EVA), totaling more than 20 hours. In August 2015, NASA and the International Partners assigned Misurkin, Tikhonov and Vande Hei as the prime crew for the Soyuz MS-04 mission, initially planned to launch in March 2017.
For Vande Hei, a 50-year-old retired U.S. Army colonel, the last several months have been a whirlwind, as he transitioned from the Flight Engineer-2 role into the more systems-intensive Flight Engineer-1. Hailing from Falls Church, Va., he attended high school in Minnesota and earned a degree in physics from Saint John’s University, near St. Cloud, in 1989. Vande Hei was commissioned into the U.S. Army through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program and initially trained as a combat engineer, serving in Iraq as part of Operation Provide Comfort.
Later in his career, he gained a master’s degree in applied physics from Stanford University and was an assistant professor at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. Vande Hei was part of the 1st Space Battalion at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., before coming to JSC in July 2006 as part of the Army contingent to work as an ISS Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) in Mission Control. Selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in June 2009, he served aboard the Aquarius undersea habitat for the NASA Extreme Envionment Mission Operations (NEEMO)-18 mission in July 2014, prior to his current ISS expedition crew assignment.
By his own admission, Vande Hei doubted for many years that he would ever be a serious contender for NASA’s elite astronaut corps. Becoming an astronaut, he told yesterday’s audience, was about as realistic as becoming Spider-Man. This led to a light-hearted quip from Joe Acaba that when he gets into space in September, Vande Hei will become Spider-Man, moving at ease along the walls, floors and ceiling of the ISS.
And 49-year-old Acaba brings the “old head” of experience to the crew. Named to this crew in March, his previous work as chief of ISS Operations in the Astronaut Office has undoubtedly prepared him for what he described as a rollercoaster couple of months. “I got pretty luck with a six-month training program,” he said, describing the experience as “busy, but fun”. In truth, Acaba will have trained for a far shorter period of time than any other long-duration U.S. astronaut. In the early ISS era, crews typically trained for up to four years—in prime and backup capacities—although more recently this has been cut to around two years. Acaba already has two spaceflights and a cumulative 138 days in low-Earth orbit and almost 13 hours of EVA experience on two spacewalks.
Born in Inglewood, Calif., the son of Puerto Rican parents, Acaba grew up with a love of science fiction reading and excelled in science and mathematics at school. He earned a degree in geology from the University of Southern California in Santa Barbara, followed by a master’s credential from the University of Arizona. Acaba also served as a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve for six years. Upon graduation, he worked as a hydrogeologist and trained over 300 teachers in the Dominican Republic during a two-year spell in the U.S. Peace Corps. A teaching career later beckoned and Acaba taught high school science and mathematics for five years, before being selected by NASA as one of three “Educator-Astronauts” in May 2004.
Acaba’s first spaceflight came in March 2009, when he spent 13 days in orbit as a member of shuttle Discovery’s STS-119 crew and performed two spacewalks to install and activate the S-6 solar arrays, batteries and radiators on the station’s Integrated Truss Structure (ITS). Three years later, he served aboard the ISS from May-September 2012 as a long-duration member of Expeditions 31 and 32. Significantly, during this increment, Acaba played a leading role in the capture and berthing of SpaceX’s first Dragon cargo ship at the space station. Since then, he has occupied a number of senior roles within the Astronaut Office and has also pursued a doctorate in education from Texas Tech University, through a distance learning program.
All three men are keenly excited for their upcoming mission, currently scheduled to begin on 13 September 2017 and end on 23 February 2018, after 163 days. Vande Hei noted that several visiting vehicles and possibly an EVA will come their way, but the extreme length of their increment means that they will need to be ready for whatever the ISS missions planners bring to the table. In terms of unpiloted visiting cargo vehicles, they are expected to welcome two Russian Progresses in October and January, one Orbital ATK Cygnus in October and a pair of SpaceX Dragons in November and February. One U.S. EVA is currently targeted for the October-November timeframe, with another possibly at the tail end at their increment to install the International Docking Adapter (IDA-3) onto the Harmony node.
“Really looking forward to getting to work,” said Vande Hei, obviously in relish of eventually honing in on a new launch date. For Acaba, with prior ISS experience, he is aware that every day aboard the space station promises to be a challenge and what will happen and what might break can never be predicted. Looking on with admiration, Misurkin noted that his U.S. crewmates had faced a “pretty tough schedule” and that, as Commander, he had been able to maintain a distance and gain a broad overview of their mission. And in spite of the reduced Russian presence on the ISS, an increased presence of four astronauts aboard the station’s U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) is expected to lead to 800 more hours of utilization, presenting “a big chunk of science,” according to Acaba.
In the room at JSC yesterday were many current teachers and Misurkin, Vande Hei and Acaba were philosophical about the importance of education. Both Vande Hei and Acaba, of course, had served as educators in their past careers. Interestingly, Acaba’s backup for Soyuz MS-06 will be fellow astronaut Ricky Arnold, who is slated to follow him to the ISS for a six-month increment in March-September 2018. As a consequence, Acaba said, the world will see “an entire year of having educators in space”.
But perhaps the most touching tribute to the profession whose importance to space exploration was first recognized with the selection of tragic Challenger astronaut Christa McAuliffe, were the words from Aleksandr Misurkin himself. Responding to an audience question, he told the story of wanting to become a cosmonaut from a very young age and approaching his teacher for advice. Although taken aback, she offered the young boy the guidance which Misurkin said he has followed throughout his life. Eventually, with hard work and commitment, it led him into space. And that, Acaba noted, with a nod to the teachers in attendance yesterday, was the true importance of education.