NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson has been granted a three-month extension to her mission on the International Space Station (ISS). The decision, made between NASA and Roscosmos, avoids a “gap” in the full crew compliment during a two-month period in the summer. Meanwhile, Soyuz TMA-02 is preparing to return home three crew members next Monday.
Dr. Whitson is already a record-breaker and no stranger to the orbital outpost.
She was assigned to her first spaceflight as a member of Expedition 5 crew, launching aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour and the STS-111 mission on 5 June 2002.
Whitson returned to the Station when she was assigned as Commander of the Expedition 16 mission and launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 10 October 2007 on Soyuz TMA-11. During just this tour alone, Whitson performed five spacewalks.
Returning to the Station on Soyuz MS-03 last November, Dr. Whitson added her eighth and ninth spacewalks of her career – more than any other female astronaut.
The plan was for Whitson to return home with her Expedition 51 crew mates Oleg Novitsky of Roscosmos and Thomas Pesquet of ESA in June. However, Whitson will now skip that departure and will head back to Earth with NASA’s Jack Fischer and Roscosmos’ Fyodor Yurchikhin in September.
“This is great news,” Whitson said. “I love being up here. Living and working aboard the space station is where I feel like I make the greatest contribution, so I am constantly trying to squeeze every drop out of my time here. Having three more months to squeeze is just what I would wish for.”
Preparations for the Station crew comings and goings began when the Station adjusted its orbit via a 35.6 firing of thrusters on the Zvezda module.
That sets the stage for the departure of Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough of NASA and Flight Engineers Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko of Roscosmos when they undock their Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft from the space station at 4 a.m. EDT and land in Kazakhstan at 7:20 a.m. (5:20 p.m. Kazakhstan time) this coming Monday.
Their return will wrap up 173 days in space for the crew members since their launch last October.
At the time of undocking, Expedition 51 will begin aboard the station under Whitson’s command.
Along with her crewmates Oleg Novitskiy of Roscosmos and Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency), the three-person crew will operate the station until the arrival of two new crew members.
NASA’s Jack Fischer and Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos are scheduled to launch April 20 from Baikonur, Kazakhstan – riding on the Soyuz MS-04.
This two person launch is the key reason why Dr. Whitson will remain on the Station.
With a Soyuz seat left empty by the Roscosmos, the ISS will be temporarily reduced to two cosmonauts. Whitson’s extension will ensure a full complement of six astronauts on board the station and increase the amount of valuable astronaut time available for experiments on board the station.
Dr. Whitson’s next record will come on April 24, whens she will break Jeff Williams’ standing United States record of 534 cumulative days in space. Along with the recent spacewalk record, Whitson also became the first woman to command the space station, and on April 9 will become the first woman to command it twice.
“Peggy’s skill and experience makes her an incredible asset aboard the space station,” added Kirk Shireman, NASA’s International Space Station Program Manager. “By extending the stay of one of NASA’s most veteran astronauts, our research, our technology development, our commercial and our international partner communities will all benefit.”
Yet another spacewalk is on the cards for Whitson when she conducts the third of a trio of EVAs that are preparing for the future arrival of US commercial crew spacecraft, along with upgrading the station hardware.
Previously, EVA-42 was set to take place on April 6. However, due to delays with the arrival of the OA-7 Cygnus spacecraft – due to issues with its Atlas V carrier rocket – the spacewalk has been postponed.
The Atlas V will now launch from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral on April 18, following the resolution of two issues – the latter relating to a hydraulic line on the rocket’s first stage.
As such, EVA-42 is now expected to take place shortly after the Cygnus is berthed to the Station, with the spacewalk currently allocated a placeholder of April 24.
The spacewalk will feature Whitson and Pesquet replacing an avionics box on the starboard truss called an ExPRESS Logistics Carrier, a storage platform. The box houses electrical and command and data routing equipment for the science experiments and replacement hardware stored outside of the station.
The reason for delaying the EVA is obvious, given the new avionics box is scheduled to launch aboard Cygnus.
The EVA will be a major milestone for the orbital outpost, marking the 200th spacewalk in support of space station assembly and maintenance.
(Images via NASA and Roscosmos).