ISS visitations and construction to increase

by Chris Bergin

The International Space Station is changing. Size-wise, shape-wise and crew-wise, the multi-national complex currently circling Earth is very different from the modest, two-roomed outpost first seen by cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev in December 1998.

With NASA setting up the potential of four assembly flights in 2007, the station will continue to grow towards the legacy many thousands of people have played a part in building, but only a few have visited.

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When next Krikalev visited, as part of the first resident crew from October 2000 to March 2001, it expanded to comprise an enormous set of US-built solar arrays, the Russian-made living quarters and the nerve centre of the station, NASA’s Destiny laboratory. His third visit, from April to October 2005, saw the outpost topping 100 tons and ready for a new phase of expansion as Shuttle construction missions resumed in the wake of the Columbia tragedy.

In April 2009, if all goes well, Krikalev will become the first person to chalk up four trips to the orbital complex and, uniquely, the only Russian cosmonaut to fly a seventh space mission, as Commander of Expedition 19.

By that point, more than two years into the future, the ISS will boast four enormous sets of US-built solar arrays, sprouting wing-like from its football-field-sized truss structure, together with a second connecting node offering access to the Japanese Kibo and European Columbus laboratories. With the exception of a viewing module known as the ‘cupola’, a third node and a still-part-finished Russian research facility, the station – which has surpassed the $100 billion mark in terms of development costs – will be complete.

Of course, Krikalev will not be alone on Expedition 19. He will be joined aboard the Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft by Maksim Surayev and they will both join another spaceflier, US astronaut Greg Chamitoff, who will have been in orbit since January 2009, courtesy of Shuttle mission STS-127.

This is the last fundamental transition between the ISS at the beginning of its permanent occupation and its eventual state: long-term crews will not always arrive at the station together. In fact, from 2009, when NASA and its international partners expect it to have a fully-staffed crew of six, some will arrive via Soyuz, others by means of the Shuttle.

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This trend has already begun. In July 2006, STS-121 delivered German astronaut Thomas Reiter to the ISS. He joined the Expedition 13 crew of Pavel Vinogradov and Jeff Williams, who had already been aloft since March, and during his five-months in space he became the first long-duration crew member whose tour of duty ‘overlapped’ two expeditions.

At present, two members of the station’s three-person Expedition 14 crew have been in orbit since September 2006 (Mike Lopez-Alegria and Mikhail Tyurin) and one since December (Suni Williams). Lopez-Alegria and Tyurin have been replaced by Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov aboard Soyuz TMA-10 in April, while Williams’ relief will come in June when STS-117 delivers Clay Anderson (subject to change).

The arrival of Anderson will mark the beginning of yet another trend: ‘mini’ expeditions. Unlike previous practice, in which each team has spent roughly four to six months in space, expedition crew members will spend varying periods of time aboard the outpost. Significantly, they will include among their numbers more European Space Agency astronauts and, for the first time, Japanese and Canadian long-duration fliers.

However, at all times, and as the ‘major’ station partners, at least one Russian cosmonaut and one US astronaut will be aboard at all times, with the Europeans, Japanese and Canadians apparently adopting a policy of ‘one-off’ expeditions, dotted here and there, at least for the foreseeable future.

Looking ahead a few months to October 2007, STS-120 will deliver the Node-2 connecting passageway to the ISS, allowing for its subsequent expansion and the addition of the Columbus and Kibo research facilities. Also aboard Space Shuttle Discovery for this mission will be US astronaut Dan Tani, who will replace Anderson.

Tani will spend barely six weeks getting to know his Expedition 15 crewmates, Yurchikhin and Kotov, before they are themselves replaced by Expedition 16’s Yuri Malenchenko and Peggy Whitson aboard Soyuz TMA-11. This pair, who both already have long-duration ISS experience, will remain aloft until April 2008, when they are relieved by two rookie cosmonauts – Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko – on Soyuz TMA-12. Their replacements, Mike Fincke and Salizhan Sharipov, will then launch in October 2008 and be followed by Krikalev and Surayev six months later.

In this sense, the Russian missions provide continuity, as well as regular, six-monthy changeouts of Soyuz TMA emergency escape vehicles for the station. From January 2009, however, it is expected that the production of these venerable spacecraft, whose genesis dates back over four decades, will double to enable launches every three months. As a result, a six-person crew will be possible, permanently, throughout the year.

Squashed in between the Soyuz TMA launches, a mix of US, European, Japanese and Canadian astronauts will also gain a taste for long-duration life aboard the almost-complete outpost. When Dan Tani returns to Earth sometime in December 2007 aboard STS-122, his replacement – Frenchman Leopold Eyharts – will become the second long-term European occupant of the ISS and will arrive at a crucial time: to coincide with the delivery of the Columbus laboratory. During his two-month mission, Eyharts will assist in the activation of the long-awaited European station showpiece and begin its first experiments.

No sooner will Columbus have been set to work than the next major component will arrive: the three-segment Japanese laboratory, consisting of a pressurised logistics module to be delivered by Dom Gorie’s STS-123 crew in Feb 2008, the huge Kibo research facility and an external experiments platform will follow.

Entirely appropriately, a Japanese long-duration crew member (Koichi Wakata) will fly to the ISS in 2008 to support the initiation of his country’s new space hardware – but, interestingly, not as early as one might think. Although Japanese spacewalker Takao Doi has already been assigned to STS-123, the third expedition crew member for the first half of 2008 (joining Malenchenko and Whitson) is actually US astronaut Garrett Reisman, who is destined to remain aboard the station from January until July.

Nor is Wakata aboard STS-124, in which the main laboratory itself will be attached to the complex. The reason is officially unclear, but observers hint that the unwelcome presence of a South Korean astronaut scheduled to join Volkov and Kononenko for a week on Soyuz TMA-12 may have obliged the Japanese to postpone their first expedition.

Instead, after the replacement of Reisman by fellow US astronaut Sandy Magnus aboard STS-119 in October 2008, Wakata’s chance will finally come on the STS-126 logistics flight in 2009. He will spend about three months aboard the ISS, returning home aboard STS-127 on the very flight that will deliver Japan’s external experiments platform.

Wakata will be replaced by Greg Chamitoff, who, presumably, will remain until at least mid-2009. The next ‘new’ expedition crew member, Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk, is scheduled to arrive at the station aboard STS-128 of that year, possibly marking the first occasion on which more than three long-duration fliers are simultaneously present on the outpost.

If Chamitoff returned home in Thirsk’s place on STS-128, it would leave the ISS with no US occupant, a situation wholly unpalatable to NASA, which announced recently that it intends to continue supporting the project until around 2016. Moreover, it is notable that STS-128 – designated ‘Assembly Mission 17A’ – will deliver three new crew quarters, a galley, an extra treadmill and a second Crew Healthcare System to properly support six long-duration inhabitants.

As for missions from 2009 onwards, and other astronauts that Krikalev, Surayev, Chamitoff and Thirsk may host that year is, at present, anyone’s guess. Other fliers currently undergoing backup training for the 2007-2009 expeditions include Timothy ‘TJ’ Creamer, Tim Kopra, Nicole Stott, Mike Barratt, Soichi Noguchi, Yuri Lonchakov and Frank de Winne.

Still others have recently undergone weeks in the NEEMO undersea laboratory and several of these have gone on to ISS training and flown expeditions. A few, perhaps, to keep an eye on for possible future long-duration missions could include: Canadians Dave Williams and Soyuz-qualified Chris Hadfield, together with NASA astronauts Nick Patrick, John ‘Danny’ Olivas, Tom Marshburn, Bob Behnken, Catherine ‘Cady’ Coleman, Doug Wheelock and Rex Walheim.

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