Three spacefarers from three nations, including a former Russian Air Force strategic bomber pilot, the second European commander of the International Space Station (ISS) and a Cuban-American flight surgeon recently moved from the backup to the prime crew, assembled at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, earlier today (Wednesday, 14 February), to discuss their upcoming five-month expedition.
Veteran astronaut Alexander Gerst and “rookies” Sergei Prokopiev and Serena Auñón-Chancellor will launch aboard Soyuz MS-09 in early June and initially join Expedition 56, before rotating into the core of Expedition 57 and returning to Earth in November. During their stay, the crew are expected to welcome as many as four unpiloted cargo visitors—two Russian Progress ships, a SpaceX Dragon and a Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV)—together with the long-awaited unpiloted maiden test-flights of the Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner.
Gerst’s assignment was made public in May 2016, with the expectation that he would become the second European Space Agency (ESA) to command the space station, after Belgium’s Frank de Winne, who led Expedition 21 in the closing months of 2009. Gerst is the only veteran member of the Soyuz MS-09 crew, having previously flown to the ISS for almost six months in May-November 2014. He served as a flight engineer for Expeditions 40 and 41, performed a single spacewalk, lasting six hours and 13 minutes, and logged a total of 165 days in orbit. Last year, Gerst announced that his upcoming mission will be named “Horizons”. When asked about the name, he explained that horizons “are a symbol for the unknown and when I gaze at the horizon, I cannot help but wonder what lies beyond it”. ESA Director General Jan Woerner added that the Horizons name was fitting, “as it will open up new horizons in human and robotic spaceflight”.
Gerst, who turns 42 in May, will become the first German astronaut to log two long-duration space missions. Born in the town of Künzelsau, within the state of Baden-Württemberg in south-central Germany, he completed technical high school in 1995. As a youth, he volunteered as a Boy Scout leader, firefighter and water-rescue lifeguard and, during his years as an undergraduate and postgraduate, he participated in various international expeditions, including Antarctica. Gerst earned his degree in geophysics from the University of Karlsruhe, followed by a master’s in Earth sciences from the Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. Whilst working on volcanic eruption dynamics in New Zealand, he developed a new monitoring technique to improve forecasting of these often cataclysmic events and his results were published in the journal Science. In 2010, a year after being selected as an ESA astronaut-candidate, Gerst received his doctorate in natural sciences from the University of Hamburg’s Institute of Geophysics.
During their five months in orbit, the crew will support an estimated 300 experiments in the fields of physical and biological sciences and technology. Asked which experiment was his favorite, Gerst joked that, as a scientist, it was like asking him to choose between Mom and Dad.
When the crew launches aboard Soyuz MS-09 on 6 June, Gerst will serve in the systems-intensive Flight Engineer-1 role, seated on the left-hand side of the cabin. In the center seat, commanding the mission to and from the ISS, is 43-year-old retired Russian Air Force Maj. Sergei Prokopiev. Born in February 1975 in Sverdlovsk, which has since restored its historical name of Yekaterinburg, he completed high school in the Urals and graduated from higher military pilots school as a pilot-engineer, with a specialism in command tactical aviation and air movement control. Prokopiev received a further education in economics at Michurinsk State Agrarian University and embarked on a lengthy career in the Russian Air Force. He served as deputy commander and later commander of the Tupolev Tu-22M3 and Tu-160 supersonic strategic bombers. In May 2010, Prokopiev flew the Tu-160 over Red Square, during the Moscow Victory Day military parade. He began formal cosmonaut training in February 2011 and qualified in the summer of the following year. At the same time, he retired from the Russian Air Force. In early 2015, Prokopiev was assigned to the backup crew for the short-duration Soyuz TMA-18M mission and later—alongside Gerst and NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps—served on the backup crew for Soyuz MS-07, which launched to the space station last December.
And with backup crews typically rotating into prime slots a couple of missions further down the road, it was anticipated that Prokopiev, Gerst and Epps would launch aboard Soyuz MS-09 in June 2018 for their own half-year ISS increment. Epps, a 47-year aerospace engineer, selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in June 2009, had been formally assigned to the mission in January 2017, with an expectation that she would become the first African-American citizen to embark on a long-duration space mission. It came as some surprise when Epps was abruptly removed from the crew last month and returned to her duties at JSC. In the interests of privacy, no reason was issued by NASA, despite much public speculation and rumor, and she was replaced by astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor.
Speaking to AmericaSpace’s Michael Galindo, Alexander Gerst was unfazed by the notion of crew members rotating in and out of missions at short notice. His first flight, Soyuz TMA-13M, saw its original Russian commander exchanged for another. “I would have loved to fly with Jeanette,” he said, “but we live in this dynamic business, where we have logistical changes all the time. It is a business that is so complex, with so many variables, that you will have those changes.”
Having been formally assigned by NASA to another mission in March 2017, this will provide Auñón-Chancellor with barely 15 months to prepare for her first mission. She initially trained with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and Canada’s David Saint-Jacques, working through winter survival and water survival training and wrapping up her first fully-suited Soyuz spacecraft simulation last November, before joining Prokopiev and Gerst in mid-January. She fitted straight into her new crew, as evidenced by glowing words from Gerst after an emergency procedures simulation. “These guys saved my life three times yesterday afternoon, protecting our space station from fire, depressurization and ammonia poisoning,” he tweeted on 1 February. “Nice work guys, looking forward to floating with you soon!” Asked about her experience of moving from one crew to another, Auñón-Chancellor noted that she was a member of the same selection group as Gerst, and knew Prokopiev well, which made her feel like part of a family and made for a “smooth transition” in training.
Crew members have been assigned to long-duration expeditions with shorter-than-normal training templates, but in many cases they have been veteran astronauts. ISS training—which originated as a four-year regime, before being reduced to around two years after 2009, thanks to the “single flow to launch” philosophy, whereby a crew follows a singular flow through backup duty to prime—is now relatively short, with astronauts announced a year or so prior to flight. “We are involved with the [International] Partners in the same level of training as before, but in a more consolidated fashion,” NASA told AmericaSpace. “Same training and same level of proficiency.”
An engineer and flight surgeon by education, Auñón-Chancellor is the daughter of Dr. Jorge Auñón, a Cuban exile who came to the United States in 1960. As a result, she will become only the second person of Cuban ancestry to fly into space, almost four decades after Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez launched aboard Soyuz 38 to the Salyut 7 orbital station in September 1980. She plans to take a banner from her father’s Havana high school, but admitted to Michael Galindo that she was “still working on” plans to get some bite-sized Cuban food to take to the ISS.
She was born in April 1976 in Indianapolis, Ind., and earned a degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University in 1997, a medical doctorate from the University of Texas Health Science Center in 2001 and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Texas Medical Branch in 2006. After internship in internal medicine and aerospace medicine, Auñón-Chancellor joined NASA as a flight surgeon, supporting ISS crew medical operations at Star City in Russia. She also served as deputy lead for Orion medical operations and deputy crew surgeon for STS-127 in July 2009, which launched just a few weeks after her selection as an astronaut candidate. “I actually screamed inside my car,” she recalled in a NASA interview. “Good thing it’s fairly soundproof.”
Since her selection, Auñón-Chancellor has worked near the South Pole on the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET), remotely piloted the Deep Worker submersible as part of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO)-16 undersea expedition and was a crew member aboard NEEMO-20 in the summer of 2015. She discussed her Antarctic experience in response to a question about longer stays in space, recalling that after two months at the South Pole her greatest joy upon arriving back in New Zealand was the smell of grass. Alexander Gerst agreed, having also worked in Antarctica and having been overwhelmed by the scent of Earth after returning from his first spaceflight in November 2014. As the only veteran member of the crew, Gerst explained that, before his first mission, he expected space to be a special place. But when he was there, gazing down on the Home Planet, he realized that Earth was the really special place, and one worthy of protection. “We don’t have another one,” he said. “We don’t have a Planet B.”
Last March, Auñón-Chancellor was formally assigned to Expeditions 58/59, with the expectation that she would launch to the space station aboard Soyuz MS-11 in November 2018. When asked shortly after her selection as an astronaut why she chose to study both engineering and medicine, she was philosophical. “Both require that you examine problems from all angles,” she said, “and reason through multiple solutions.”
Moving up in the crew launch order also means that Auñón-Chancellor will be one of very few U.S. astronauts not to have completed a full training “flow” as a backup crew member. Had she remained attached to Soyuz MS-11, she would have been on the backup team for Soyuz MS-09. Interestingly, her upcoming Expedition 56 crewmates Feustel, Artemyev and Arnold also moved directly into a prime spot. Asked if Auñón-Chancellor required additional training to meet the impending launch date, NASA told AmericaSpace that “she is fully trained to fly”.
Her first mission will certainly be a multi-faceted one. Launch of Soyuz MS-09 is currently targeted from Baikonur on 6 June and the crew of Propkopiev, Gerst and Auñón-Chancellor will spend two days in transit, before docking at the station’s Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module. Orbit-phasing constraints mean that a six-hour and four-orbit “fast rendezvous” will not be adopted for this mission. They will be welcomed by the incumbent Expedition 56 increment of Commander Drew Feustel and his crewmates Oleg Artemyev and Ricky Arnold, who are due to launch in mid-March. This trio will return to Earth in late August, whereupon Gerst will assume command of Expedition 57, through his own crew’s return home in November. At least two Russian Progress supply ships, SpaceX’s CRS-15 Dragon and a Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) are due to fly between June and October, plus Soyuz MS-10 will launch in September, carrying Russian cosmonauts Alexei Ovchinin and Nikolai Tikhonov, together with NASA’s Nick Hague. It will be a welcome opportunity for first-timer Tikhonov, who was pulled from a previous mission at short notice, when Russia decided to reduce its ISS crew complement in the late summer of 2016.
Sergei Prokopiev is particularly looking forward to having a full crew of three Russian cosmonauts on the station. “We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” he told Michael Galindo. “I think that configuration is especially important for first-time cosmonauts. Having three cosmonauts on-board will open new capabilities on the station.”
Also expected are the inaugural unpiloted visits by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, as part of the Commercial Crew Program. Last month, NASA announced that those flights are both slated for August, with the SpaceX vehicle rocketing to orbit atop an Upgraded Falcon 9 and Boeing’s spacecraft riding the maiden launch of United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V 422. They are expected to rendezvous and dock with Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-2 on the space-facing (or “zenith”) face of the station’s Harmony node. “ISS crew members receive generic training on both Commercial Crew vehicles,” NASA told AmericaSpace, “but their operation is the responsibility of the commercial providers.” Successful completion of the unpiloted tests should produce the first crewed flights before year’s end, preparatory to contracted ISS crew-exchange missions from 2019 onwards.
“It’s a dynamic business, especially right now, shifting towards commercial transport of crew,” Gerst told Michael Galindo. “So we have to train for all of these vehicles.”
Closing out today’s press conference, the Soyuz crew was asked for the kinds of foods that they would most enjoy (or miss) whilst in orbit. For Prokopiev, it was fruit, particularly apples and oranges, whilst Gerst’s penchant was for salad and parmesan cheese. But it seemed as if someone high above Earth was listening, as Auñón-Chancellor declared that she was most looking forward to eating tortillas with peanut butter and jelly, having seen so many of her fellow astronauts enjoying the treat. Within minutes of the end of the press conference, maybe by pure coincidence, or maybe not, Expedition 54 astronaut Scott Tingle—one of Auñón-Chancellor’s 2009 classmates—tweeted an image down to Earth for his 42,600 Twitter followers. “My favorite lunch ever,” he said. “PB&J in space. On a tortilla, of course!”