50 Years After Moon Landing, Soyuz MS-13 Crew Launches to Space Station

Three spacefarers from a trio of nations will launch aboard Soyuz MS-13 on Saturday, 20 July, bound for a multi-month tour of the International Space Station (ISS). First-time NASA flyer Drew Morgan, seasoned Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Skvortsov and Italy’s only spacewalker, Luca Parmitano, will rise from Site 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 9:28 p.m. local time (12:28 p.m. EDT), exactly 50 years to the day since Apollo 11 crewmen Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin alighted on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility. The moment that Lunar Module (LM) Eagle touched down on alien soil falls at 4:18 p.m. EDT, as the three spacefarers are midway through a six-hour transit to their off-planet home.

Although many crews have observed the date of the first manned lunar landing—including the STS-65 shuttle astronauts, who were in orbit for the 25th anniversary in July 1994—the mission of Morgan, Skvortsov and Parmitano is the first to actually launch on the historic date itself. In their pre-flight press conference, the three men were philosophical about the anniversary. Morgan noted that the launch of an international crew on this momentous date provides an “interesting contrast” to the wholly U.S. achievement of Apollo 11. Parmitano explained that humans “can achieve a lot more by co-operating together than competing” and Skvortsov added that the international partners are “all united by one goal; by one main task”.

The mission patch for Expedition 60 crew prominently includes the waxing crescent Moon, an L-shaped constellation of three stars to honor the Latin symbol for “50” and the shape of an eagle in the same poise as Apollo 11’s iconic flight emblem, whose Lunar Module (LM) was named for the national bird of the United States. “#Expedition60 patch modeled its symbology after #Apollo11 mission patch,” Morgan recently tweeted. “Prominent Eagle, no crew names, but reversed the moonscape in the foreground with Earthscape, and the distant Earth for a distant Moon.”

Commanding Soyuz MS-13 and serving as a flight engineer aboard the current, in-progress Expedition 60 and, from October, on Expedition 61, is 53-year-old Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Skvortsov, making his third trip into space. The son of unflown cosmonaut Aleksandr Skvortsov, he grew up in the Moscow region with a love of aviation and pursued a military career in his father’s footsteps. “It’s basically our family tradition,” Skvortsov once remarked to a NASA interviewer, “because I became a military pilot and my brother is a military pilot, too.”

He graduated as a pilot-engineer in 1987 and flew the L-39, MiG-23 and Su-27 aircraft as a pilot, senior pilot and chief of aircraft formation. Selected for cosmonaut training in 1997, “specifically for the ISS”, Skvortsov served as the flight engineer on Expedition 23, launched in April 2010, before rotating into the command of Expedition 24, ahead of his return to Earth the following September. He retired from the Russian Air Force as a colonel in 2012, but remained a cosmonaut, serving as a flight engineer on Expeditions 39-40 in March-September 2014. Across his two prior missions, Skvortsov—a self-confessed lover of spicy food and responsible for having “finished off all the spicy ketchup stock” and shocking his crewmates “by making and eating wasabi sandwiches”—has logged over 345 days in space and more than 12.5 hours of spacewalking experience.

With Skvortsov in the center seat aboard Soyuz MS-13, the occupant of the left-hand Flight Engineer-1 couch will be 42-year-old Italian Air Force colonel Luca Salvo Parmitano, who in July 2013 became the first—and, so far, only—of his countryman in history to perform a spacewalk. Born in the Sicilian town of Paternò, he spent a year as an exchange student in Mission Viejo, Calif., before finishing high school in 1995 and later completing a degree in political science at the University of Naples.

In 2000, Parmitano graduated from the Italian Air Force Academy and went on to complete basic training with the U.S. Air Force at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. He subsequently qualified as an electronic warfare office, earned a master’s degree in experimental flight test engineering and in 2007 became an experimental test pilot. Two years later, he was selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) for astronaut training and in May-November 2013 he became the first of his class to voyage to the space station. In doing so, Parmitano’s increment on Expeditions 36-37 logged him 166 days in orbit and over 7.5 hours of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) time.

By contrast, U.S. Army colonel Andrew Richard Morgan—who will occupy the right-hand Flight Engineer-2 seat aboard Soyuz MS-13—will be embarking on his first space mission. And it promises to be lengthy one, for unlike Skvortsov and Parmitano, who are due to return to Earth in February 2020, the 43-year-old Morgan will remain aboard the ISS for nine months, not expected to land until April. This peculiar circumstance is the result of the United Arab Emirates sending its first astronaut on a week-long visit to the ISS in September-October 2019. To make available ascent/descent Soyuz seats for the UAE spacefarer, it was revealed earlier this year that NASA astronaut Christina Koch would extend her stay until February 2020 and, by a domino-like effect, Morgan who do likewise until April.

Asked at the crew’s pre-flight press conference if training for a nine-month mission differs in any meaningful way from six months, Morgan identified the basic needs of additional food and clothes. But there was something else, too. “It’s going to amount to an entire school year,” he said, meaning he will miss out on key aspects of his children’s education. “It feels a little more real when you miss an entire school year.” Returning to Earth on or around 1 April 2020, Morgan will log some 255 days in orbit, securing a record for the longest single spaceflight by a U.S. Army officer and the first by a board-certified U.S. Army physician. He will also enter second place on the list of most flight-experienced U.S. Army astronauts, behind Jeff Williams.

Born in Morgantown, West Virginia, the progeny of a military family, Morgan received his schooling in Delaware and earned a degree in environmental engineering from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1998. During his time at West Point, Morgan was a member of the Black Knights parachuting team. Four years later, he gained a medical degree from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., and subsequently completed a residency in emergency medicine and a fellowship in primary care sports medicine. As a military officer, he volunteered for special operations and was a physician for the Army’s parachute team and later a battalion surgeon. During his tenure in special operations, Morgan deployed in direct support of combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa. Selected as a NASA astronaut candidate in June 2013, he was officially announced as a member of Expedition 60/61 in May 2018.

Skvortsov, Parmitano and Morgan pulled double backup duties in support of both the Soyuz MS-11 and Soyuz MS-12 crews, launched in December 2018 and March of this year, respectively. Late last month, they completed their final Soyuz exams and on 4 July, the three men and their own backups—spaceflight veterans Sergei Ryzhikov of Russia, NASA’s Tom Marshburn and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi—flew from the Star City cosmonauts’ training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, to Baikonur, for final training. Weather at the Kazakh launch site hit 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit), which Morgan labeled “a warm welcome”, and the prime and backup crews pressed directly into final training and the traditional symbolic activities of raising national flags and planting trees in the fabled Avenue of Cosmonauts. The Soyuz-FG booster bearing the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft was rolled out to Site 1/5 on 18 July.

Following their Saturday launch, Skvortsov, Parmitano and Morgan will spend six hours in transit, before docking at the ISS at about 6:50 p.m. EDT. During their journey to the sprawling orbital outpost, at 4:18 p.m., 50 years will pass since Armstrong and Aldrin brought LM Eagle into port on the Sea of Tranquility. And at 10:56 p.m. Saturday, as Skvortsov, Parmitano and Morgan settle down for their first night in space, a half-century will have passed since Armstrong’s historic “one small step” onto alien soil. Unusually for a visiting crew, they will dock at the aft-facing port of the Zvezda module—along the station’s longitudinal axis—as opposed to the space-facing Poisk or Earth-facing Rassvet modules, which are ordinarily utilized by incoming Soyuz vehicles. The reason is associated with the planned unmanned test-flight of Soyuz MS-14, which will dock at Poisk in late August.

The new arrivals will be welcomed aboard by the incumbent Expedition 60 crew of Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin and NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Christina Koch, all of whom have occupied the station since mid-March. There will be little time to acclimatize to their new surroundings, for SpaceX’s CRS-18 Dragon cargo mission is due to arrive on 23 July and a few days thereafter Northrop Grumman’s NG-11 Cygnus and Russia’s Progress MS-11 resupply freighters will depart. The arrival of Dragon will bring with a long-awaited second International Docking Adapter (IDA) for Commercial Crew operations, which Hague and Morgan will install on the space-facing (or “zenith”) face of the Harmony node during an Extravehicular Activity (EVA) in August.

The late summer and early fall will be a hectic time, with no fewer than two Soyuz vehicles—one crewed, the other uncrewed—slated to launch in August-September. Soyuz MS-14 is flying to test new guidance, navigation and control systems, with Soyuz MS-15 due to fly on 25 September to bring Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, NASA’s Jessica Meir and UAE astronaut Hazza al-Mansouri uphill. A week later, al-Mansouri will return to Earth aboard Soyuz MS-12, shoulder to shoulder with Ovchinin and Hague, who will wrap up more than 6.5 months in orbit. Parmitano will assume command and become only the third European to helm the station and Expedition 61 will officially begin.

The arrival of the new crew will bring together four discrete classmates; for Skvortsov and Skripochka were selected together as cosmonauts back in 1997 and Morgan and Meir were picked together by NASA in 2013. Between four and six EVAs on the U.S. Operational Segment (USOS) are planned in the fall and winter—two to three spacewalks in September, followed by another two to three in January 2020, according to NASA’s Rob Navias—which are tasked with replacing aging nickel-hydrogen batteries with upgraded lithium-ion ones on the two power channels of the station’s P-6 truss. New batteries will be brought uphill aboard Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-8) in September and by HTV-9 in February 2020.

Of significance in the November-December timeframe are the first crewed flights by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner; the former slated to carry former shuttle flyers Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the ISS for a week and the latter due to ferry veteran astronaut Mike Fincke, first-timer Nicole Mann and seasoned shuttle commander and Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson for what is expected to be six-month tour. Oddly, with only a few months remaining before launch, NASA remains tight-lipped over even mundane details about crew positions and responsibilities on the missions. But NASA’s Rob Navias did advise AmericaSpace that, “at least in the near-term”, none of the crew members launched via Commercial Crew vehicles will rotate into the command of ISS expeditions, meaning that Ferguson, Fincke and Mann will likely remain Flight Engineers for the entire duration of their six months in orbit. If the schedule holds, this raises the possibility that as many as nine long-duration crew members—Parmitano, Koch, Skvortsov, Morgan, Skripochka, Meir, Ferguson, Fincke and Mann—could be aboard the ISS simultaneously as 2019 crosses into 2020.

The departure of Soyuz MS-13 in February 2020 will see Skvortsov, Parmitano and Koch return to Earth; as outlined by AmericaSpace earlier this year, Koch will secure a new record of 328 days for the longest single mission by a female spacefarer. For their part, Skvortsov and Parmitano will wrap up over 200 days off the planet. And for Morgan, returning to Earth on about 1 April aboard Soyuz MS-15, alongside Skripochka and Meir, his first voyage into space promises to stretch to 255 days.

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