US Army colonel and NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams acknowledged the need for the continued role the Russian Soyuz spacecraft will have in transporting Americans to the International Space Station (ISS), despite the imminent return to flight of the Space Shuttle.
Williams himself is preparing to blast off on the veteran Russian transport from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, early Thursday morning, for a six month stay on the ISS.
The 47 year old will serve as science officer and flight engineer, alongside his Russian commander, Pavel Vinogradov, as part of Expedition 13, replacing Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and NASA astronaut William McArthur. Brazilian astronaut Marcos Pontes will also be launching on the Soyuz TMA-8, spending eight days on the outpost, before returning to Earth with Tokarev and McArthur.
NASA has required the use of the Soyuz spacecraft to ensure a continued US presence on the ISS, since the loss of Columbia in 2003. While Discovery took a trip to the ISS last July, STS-114 was a test flight, involving no crew rotations, as previous Shuttle missions had been used for alongside regular Soyuz missions.
The US Shuttle will once again play a role in transporting astronauts to the ISS this year, with STS-121’s mission in July increasing the permanent crew compliment on the space station to three, with the addition of ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Thomas Reiter, who will be riding on Discovery’s final test flight before the resumption of regular Shuttle missions.
Regardless, NASA has purchased space on future Soyuz missions to the ISS, with a dual role alongside Shuttle in crew rotation flights to the station.
‘The only access we had at the time – and still have – is the Soyuz, so the conclusion that everyone came to right away was that we needed to use the Soyuz and rotate crews on the Soyuz,’ Williams said to his local paper, the Duluth News Tribune. ‘We’re now getting to the point of flying the shuttle again.
‘In that process, we’ve decided, as an international partnership, to continue to rotate two of the three people on Soyuz, and the third person will rotate on a different frequency on the shuttle.’
That partnership has its positives for Williams, not just on the international cooperation that NASA has needed during trying times with their only form of manned space transportation, but also on diplomatic and political levels.
‘With Russia being the other major partner, it’s not only important for humankind to work together internationally for discovery and exploration,’ he added. It’s important diplomatically and politically for the world.’
Once on the ISS, Williams will undertake three space walks during his six month stay, working on scientific experiments housed externally on the ISS, as well as carrying out research into the effects on zero gravity on the human body – a crucial source of information for NASA’s future goals of extended space flight and exploration of the moon and Mars.
Looking ahead to six months of travelling a few hundred miles above the Earth, at 17,500 mph, Williams’ busy schedule is the ultimate focus of his mission, though he admitted to the emotions expected of someone who is amount to undertake something very few people have experienced before him.
‘It’s a little overwhelming when I think about it,’ he said. ‘I’m trying to focus on being prepared to just do the job and do the job one day at a time. But every once in awhile I sit back and ponder where I am.