Expedition 71 Crew Discusses Six-Month ISS Increment, Crew-9 Announcement Expected Next Week

Crew-8 consists of (from left to right) Aleksandr Grebenkin, Mike Barratt, Matt Dominick and Jeanette Epps. Photo Credit: NASA

The oldest person ever to embark on a long-duration mission, a woman who later this year will become the world’s second most flight-experienced female astronaut and three first-time space travelers gathered before the media on Thursday to discuss their forthcoming stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Seasoned veterans Mike Barratt and Tracy Dyson—with four prior spaceflights and four spacewalks between them—should each pass a cumulative one year of off-planet experience in 2024, whilst their Expedition 71 crewmates Matt Dominick, Jeanette Epps and Russia’s Aleksandr Grebenkin are set to begin the first missions of their careers.

Matt Dominick (left) will command Crew-8, with Mike Barratt (right) as pilot. Standing behind them is Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Grebenkin. Photo Credit: NASA

Sixty-four-year-old physician and flight surgeon Barratt passes fellow astronaut Tom Marshburn to become the oldest person to fly a long-duration ISS increment. Selected by NASA in July 2000, Barratt first served as a crewman on Expedition 19/20 between March and October 2009, during which he logged 199 days in orbit and completed a single session of Extravehicular Activity (EVA), lasting four hours and 54 minutes.

Whilst in orbit, Barratt and Expedition 20 crewmate Nicole Stott learned of their assignment as Mission Specialists on STS-133, the final voyage of shuttle Discovery which took place in early 2011. At the end of his second spaceflight, Barratt accrued 211 days, 11 hours and 46 minutes in space and circled the Home Planet over 3,300 times.

Tracy Dyson is pictured during Extravehicular Activity (EVA) training in 2019. Photo Credit: NASA

Dyson, a 54-year-old physical chemist and private pilot, was chosen by NASA as an astronaut candidate in June 1998 and first flew as a Mission Specialist aboard shuttle Endeavour on STS-118 in August 2007. She later served aboard the ISS during Expeditions 23/24 between April and September 2010, returning from her second space voyage with a cumulative 188 days, 19 hours and 13 minutes in orbit and 22 hours and 49 minutes of EVA time on three spacewalks.

Rounding out the quintet are three spacefaring first-timers. Matt Dominick, a 42-year-old Naval Aviator with over 1,600 flight hours in 28 different types of aircraft who completed two deployments flying the F/A-18 Super Hornet during Operation Enduring Freedom, t6hen graduated as a test pilot and served as a project development flight test officer on several military programs. Selected into NASA’s Astronaut Corps in June 2017, Dominick becomes the third member of his class to draw a spaceflight command on his first mission.

Video Credit: NASA

Fifty-three-year-old Jeanette Epps will be the last U.S. member of NASA’s June 2009 astronaut intake to reach orbit. A former CIA technology officer with a doctorate in aerospace engineering, she was initially assigned in January 2017 to fly a six-month ISS increment in June of the following year, which might have made her the first African-American long-duration space traveler.

But in January 2018, Epps was abruptly pulled from her mission for undisclosed reasons. She later served in the astronaut office’s Mission Support Crew Branch, with responsibilities covering Exploration, the Orion Crew Module (CM) and other issues, before being reassigned in September 2020 to Starliner-1, Boeing’s first Post-Certification Mission (PCM) to the space station. But as Starliner’s Crew Flight Test (CFT) slipped further to the right, so did Starliner-1 and in August of last year Epps was reassigned again to fly shoulder-to-shoulder with Dominick and Barratt.   

NASA Astronaut Jeanette Epps participates in a training at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida before she launches to the International Space Station as mission specialist of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-8 mission in February 2024. Credit: SpaceX

Aleksandr Grebenkin, aged 41, becomes the fourth Russian cosmonaut to fly a Commercial Crew vehicle when he launches shoulder-to-shoulder with Dominick, Barratt and Epps aboard SpaceX’s Dragon Endeavour in late February as a member of Crew-8. A former aircraft engineer and Russian Air Force officer, Grebenkin entered his nation’s Cosmonaut Corps in August 2018 and completed training in December 2020.

According to Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager, Crew-8 is currently tracking launch atop a brand-new Falcon 9 booster in the late February timeframe. Although ISS, SpaceX and agency-wide flight readiness reviews will commence tomorrow, Stich and ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano are cognizant of Intuitive Machines’ forthcoming IM-1 mission, part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program which will set a lander onto the Moon’s surface near the lunar south.

Jeanette Epps and Aleksandr Grebenkin pictured during the Crew Equipment Interface Test (CEIT) earlier this month. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Due to the timing demands of meeting IM-1’s critically short lunar “launch window”, the mission is presently targeting a liftoff from the Space Coast in mid-February. If it flies on time, Mr. Stich expects Crew-8 to fly as early as 29 February—the first crewed mission in history to begin on a Leap Day—or perhaps 1 March, but if IM-1 succumbs to a lengthier delay or slips into the next lunar window Dominic, Barratt, Epps and Grebenkin may find themselves launching as soon as 22 February.

Crew-8 will ride Endeavour, the most flight-seasoned of SpaceX’s active fleet of four operational Crew Dragons, which will become the first to reach a fifth orbital voyage. Endeavour first entered space on the historic Demo-2 mission between May and August in 2020 and received her name from NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, who both flew shuttle Endeavour on their first flights.

Dragon Endeavour approaches the International Space Station (ISS), bearing Crew-2 in April 2021. With the flight of Crew-8, Endeavour will become the first Crew Dragon to have reached both a fourth and a fifth mission. Photo Credit: NASA

She went on to log three additional missions, ferrying the four Crew-2 astronauts from the United States, France and Japan to the space station between April and November of 2021 on a 199-day voyage that set a new record for the longest single spaceflight ever undertaken by a U.S. crewed vehicle. More recently, Endeavour supported Ax-1 in April 2022, the first Private Astronaut Mission (PAM) on behalf of Houston, Texas-headquartered AxiomSpace, Inc., and just last year she spent six months in space in support of Crew-6.

All told, Endeavour has logged more than 466 cumulative days in space and completed over 7,400 orbits of the Home Planet. Processing of the veteran ship concluded just before Christmas, when it underwent propellant checks and final systems closeouts. Dominick, Barratt, Epps and Grebenkin visited the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida earlier in January to see their ship, donning their customized SpaceX launch and entry suits to clamber aboard and evaluate environmental controls, audio loops and seat configuration.

Matt Dominick (right) and Mike Barratt prepare for a T-38 flight out of Ellington Field in January 2023. Photo Credit: NASA

Their Falcon 9 booster—an unflown core, whose tail-number is as-yet unknown, but likely B1083—arrived in Florida on 22 January. It will be mated with its second stage and Dragon Endeavour in the coming days.

Current plans are for Crew-8 to overlap with the incumbent Crew-7 team—NASA astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli, Denmark’s Andreas Mogensen of the European Space Agency (ESA), Russian cosmonaut Konstantin Borisov and Japan’s Satoshi Furukawa—who have been aboard the ISS since late August. They will enjoy a brief “handover” period lasting five to seven days, before boarding Dragon Endurance and returning to a parachute-assisted splashdown off the Florida Coast in early March.

The crew of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-8 mission to the International Space Station poses for a photo during their Crew Equipment Interface Test at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The goal of the training is to rehearse launch day activities and get a close look at the spacecraft that will take them to the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX

With their departure, Crew-8 will settle in with Expedition 70 Commander Oleg Kononenko, his Russian comrade Nikolai Chub and NASA’s Loral O’Hara, who have been aboard the station since September. Soyuz MS-25 will launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 21 March, carrying Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky, NASA’s Tracy Dyson and the first Belarusian space traveler, Marina Vasilyevskaya.

With Kononenko and Chub expected to remain on the ISS for a full year until September 2024, Novitsky and Vasilyevskaya will return to Earth aboard Soyuz MS-24 after about ten days alongside O’Hara, leaving the “fresh” Soyuz MS-25 crew ship docked to the station. With their departure, Expedition 71 will formally be underway, with Kononenko retaining his command to become only the second person to lead a year-long ISS expedition.

Expedition 71 crew patch. Image Credit: NASA

Crew-8 are targeting a 180-day stay on the ISS, departing in late August, with Kononenko, Chub and Dyson remaining aboard through late September. That will see Barratt and Dyson each push through one full year of cumulative space-time across their careers, potentially positioning the latter—with around 375 total days over her three missions—as the world’s second most flight-experienced female astronaut, behind Peggy Whitson.

During today’s media briefing, the crew was adamant that they consider themselves not as members of Crew-8 or Soyuz MS-25, but rather as Expedition 71. “We’re wearing Expedition 71 shirts for one reason,” Dominick said. “We’re one team.”

Video Credit: NASA

Added Barratt: Comparing Crew Dragon and Soyuz was like deciding “what commuter car you’re taking to work.” And for Epps, who has trained on Soyuz, Starliner and Crew Dragon across her NASA career, the response was even simpler. “Any space capsule,” she said with a wizened grin, “that we can take to space is amazing!”

Across their six months in orbit, Expedition 71 will welcome as many as three U.S. cargo ships from all three active Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) providers: a SpaceX Cargo Dragon in March and Sierra Nevada Corp.’s first Dream Chaser, possibly in June, with a Northrop Grumman Corp. Cygnus later in the year. Four Russian Progress resupply freighters will launch or depart between June and August and the long-awaited Crew Flight Test (CFT) of Boeing’s Starliner—carrying NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Suni Williams for a one-to-two-week stay—is scheduled for mid-April.

Crew-8 Commander Matt Dominick, pictured during EVA training last year. Photo Credit: NASA

Three Russian spacewalks are planned for early-to-midyear and Barratt teased about some “EVA content added to our mission” in the last “very few weeks”. NASA’s Rob Navias confirmed to AmericaSpace that a spacewalk previously slated to be performed by Expedition 70’s O’Hara and Mogensen in February has moved “until later in the year, due to the volume of work in February for the crewmembers on ISS”.

Mr. Navias added that NASA will announce next week the astronauts and a single Russian cosmonaut to fly aboard Crew-9, the next SpaceX rotation mission to the space station in August.

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