After four and a half months in space, Roscosmos’ Soyuz MS-04 returned three spaceflight veterans to Earth – including one who has been on orbit far longer than the craft itself. Landing on the Kazakh steppes at 07:22 local time in Kazakhstan on Sunday, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson concluded an unplanned 288 day mission aboard the International Space Station, a mission which has seen her shatter records and accumulate a NASA-unparalleled 665 days in space.
Soyuz MS-04 undocking and landing:
Since launching to the International Space Station on 20 April 2017 with just two crewmembers, Soyuz MS-04 had remained docked to the orbital outpost for the last four and a half months.
Now, Soyuz MS-04 returned not two but three astronauts from the Station, with NASA astronaut Dr. Peggy Whitson joining fellow NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and former Station Commander and Soyuz MS-04 Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin on their return trip to Earth.
Prior to the Soyuz’s departure, the customary exchange of command ceremony was held, during which Expedition 52 Commander Yurchikhin transferred command of the ISS to NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik, who is just over one month into his first long-duration space mission (second overall mission).
Hatch closure between Soyuz MS-04 and the International Space Station was at 14:40 EDT, at which point a choreographed undocking sequence began to depressurize the vestibule between the two craft and retract the hooks on Soyuz to physically release it from the Station.
Undocking occurred at 17:58 EDT (21:58 GMT), at which point Soyuz MS-04 backed away from the ISS and prepare itself for landing three and a half hours later.
At the moment of undocking, Expedition 52 officially came to an end and Expedition 53 began.
Soyuz initiated its deorbit burn it 20:29 EDT (00:29 on 3 September), after which the three separate modules of Soyuz separated.
With this crucial separation sequence (which must occur for a successful reentry and landing), the forward Orbital Module and aft Instrumentation/Propulsion Module destructively burned-up in Earth’s atmosphere as the center Descent Module (with the crew) reoriented itself heat shield first for entry into the atmosphere.
With a nominal entry trajectory so that Soyuz MS-04 does not fall back to a ballistic style reentry (a steeper, more intense reentry designed to get Soyuz to the ground as quickly as possible – and an entry mode that is always available for emergency situations), MS-04 concluded its mission with a landing on the Kazakh steppes at 21:22 EDT ( 0122 GMT, 07:22 local time in Kazakhstan).
Dr. Peggy Whitson – humbly breaking records and barriers:
When she launched to the International Space Station as part of the Expedition 50 and 51 crews on the Soyuz MS-03 mission, her tenure aboard the Station was due to end after approximately six months, landing with the same two crewmembers she launched with.
But a realignment of the Russian crew manifest and a desire on the part of Roscosmos to reduce Russian Station personnel from three to two until the launch of their new Mini-Research Module resulted in an ability, unplanned at her launch, to allow Dr. Whitson to remain aboard the ISS for nine months instead of six.
Her planned six month stay, assuming it lasted the entire duration, would have seen Dr. Whitson break an important record for NASA – that of the most cumulative time in space for any NASA astronaut in history.
Dr. Whitson broke that record on 24 April 2017, when she accumulated 534 days off Earth – breaking the record set by Jeff Williams in 2016.
With the conclusion of her current mission, Dr. Whitson will have amassed a cumulative time of 665 days 22 hours 54 minutes in orbit, more than shattering Jeff Williams’s record and placing her 8th on the list of total time in space for a single person.
(NOTE: The current record holder is cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who – as of 2013 – has spent 879 days in space and stands to add at least another six months to that record, taking him over the 1,000 days in space mark, when he launches for another long-duration mission to the ISS in September 2018.
Coincidentally, the person directly above Dr. Whitson in the 7th slot of the total time in space list is fellow Expedition 52 crewmember and Soyuz MS-04 landing fellow Fyodor Yurchikhin, who at Soyuz MS-04’s landing will have 673 days in space.)
At the time she broke Jeff Williams record, Dr. Whitson stated, “It’s an honor for me basically to be representing all the folks at NASA who make space flight possible and who make me setting this record feasible.”
Separately, Dr. Whitson commented through her Twitter account “It is one of those rides that you hope never ends. I am so grateful for all those who helped me on each of my missions!”
But that wasn’t the only record Dr. Whitson was set to break during her prolonged mission.
In June, she became the record holder for the longest single space flight by a woman, surpassing the record of ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti which – before Dr. Whitson – stood at 199 days 16 hours.
Dr. Whitson’s current mission is set to end at a mission elapsed time of 289 days 5 hours 5 minutes – shattering Cristoforetti’s record by an impressive 90 days.
Moreover, as planned, she served as Commander of Expedition 51 and became the first woman to command the International Space Station twice, having previously commanded Expedition 16 in 2007/2008, and became the second woman to twice serve as Commander of two space missions following Eileen Collins who commanded two Space Shuttle missions, including the STS-114 Return To Flight mission in 2005.
Additionally, during the originally planned portion of her stay, Dr. Whitson tied and then surpassed fellow NASA astronaut Sunita Williams for total number of Extra Vehicular Activities (EVAs, or spacewalks) performed by a woman.
Dr. Whitson tied Sunita Williams’s record of seven EVAs in January and went on to perform three more EVAs, bringing her total number of spacewalks to 10 and her total time performing EVAs to 60 hours (2.5 days).
With 60 hours of EVA time to her name, Dr. Whitson currently stands third on the total EVA time list.
But despite all of these newly-set records, most impressive is Dr. Whitson’s professionalism, dedication, and continuously demonstrated ability to efficiently and effectively work ahead of her daily timelines.
Within NASA, Dr. Whitson’s ability to outperform the allotted time schedulers give her for each task has led NASA to create daily “Peggy Get Ahead Tasks” and is one of the numerous reasons NASA has selected her for three long-duration missions aboard the International Space Station.
Once she is safely on the ground in Kazakhstan, Dr. Whitson and fellow NASA astronaut Jack Fischer will be returned to Houston under a return plan that is currently under evaluation due to the continuing effects on the Johnson Space Center from Hurricane Harvey.
With her current mission soon to be behind her, Dr. Whitson, assuming she is willing, is likely high on the list of NASA astronauts for a future tour of duty aboard Earth’s orbital scientific outpost – and she herself has expressed curiosity whether she will be afforded the opportunity to break the all time “off Earth” record.
Dr. Peggy A. Whitson:
Peggy Whitson was born on 9 February 1960 in Mt. Ayr, Iowa, and earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1981 before attending the biochemistry doctorate program at Rice University, from which she graduated in 1985.
During her time at Rice University, Whitson was a Robert A. Welch Predoctoral Fellow – a fellowship she continued following her graduation until October 1986.
Dr. Whitson then joined a team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) as a National Research Council Resident Research Associate – a posting she held from October 1986 to April 1988.
Dr. Whitson went on to become a Supervisor for the Biochemistry Research Group at KRUG International, a medical sciences contractor at the NASA Johnson Space Center, from April 1988 to September 1989.
Beginning in 1989, Dr. Whitson worked as a Research Biochemist in the Biomedical Operations and Research Branch of JSC until 1993.
From 1991 to 1992, Dr. Whitson additionally served as the Payload Element Developer for the bone cell research experiment which flew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-47.
Moreover, from 1991 to 1993, she also served as Technical Monitor of the Biochemistry Research Laboratories in the same research branch.
Moreover, at this same time, she was also a member of the US-USSR Joint Working Group in Space Medicine and Biology.
In 1992, she was named as a project scientist for the Shuttle-Mir Program, a position she held until conclusion of the Phase 1A (STS-60, STS-63, STS-71, Mir 18, and Mir 19) portion of the program in 1995.
Dr. Wilson also held additional responsibilities from 1993 to 1996 as the Deputy Division Chief of the Medical Sciences Division at JSC – an assignment which overlapped in the final two years with her responsibilities as Co-Chair of the US-Russian Mission Science Working Group.
Dr. Whitson’s service in these capacities ended in 1996 when her application as an astronaut candidate was selected by NASA, and she began basic astronaut training in August 1996.
Dr. Whitson completed training in two years and in 1998 was assigned technical duties in the Astronaut Office Operations Planning Branch where she served as a Lead for the Crew Test Support Team in Russia until 1999.
In 2000, Dr. Whitson was assigned to her first spaceflight as a member of the Expedition 5 crew to the International Space Station and launched aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour and the STS-111 mission on 5 June 2002.
Dr. Whitson remained on the Station for six months as a Flight Engineer for Expedition 5.
During her stay aboard the Station, Dr. Whitson installed the Mobile Base System and the S1 and P1 truss segments using the Space Station Remote Manipulator System.
She performed a 4 hour 25 minute Orlan spacewalk to install micrometeoroid shielding on the Zvezda Service Module and activated and checked out the Microgravity Sciences Glovebox – a facility class payload rack.
During Expedition 5, she was named the first NASA Science Officer aboard the Station as she conducted 21 investigations into human life sciences and microgravity sciences.
Dr. Whitson left the Station on 3 December 2002 aboard the Endeavour and the STS-113 mission, successfully returning to Earth on 7 December 2002.
From launch until landing, Dr. Whitson logged 184 days 22 hours 14 minutes in space.
Subsequently, she served as Commander of the NEEMO-5 mission from 16-29 June 2003.
In November 2003, she was named Deputy Chief for the Astronaut Office, a position she held until March 2005, at which point she became Chief of the Station Operations Branch.
Dr. Whitson left this post when she was assigned as backup Commander of the Expedition 14 mission – which she trained for from November 2005 to September 2006.
Dr. Whitson was then assigned as Commander of the Expedition 16 mission and launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 10 October 2007 on Soyuz TMA-11.
She arrived back at the Station on 12 October to become the first woman to Command the ISS.
During her 6 month tenure as Commander, Dr. Whitson oversaw the largest expansion of internal, habitable volume of the Station of any Expedition during construction of the ISS – with Shuttles Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour delivering the Harmony connecting module, ESA’s Columbus laboratory, and the first of two modules of the JAXA Kibo lab.
Uniquely, the start of Expedition 16 coincided with the STS-120 mission of Discovery – notable as Discovery was also commanded by a woman, Pamela Melroy.
When Discovery docked to the ISS less than two weeks into Dr. Whitson’s Command, it marked the first and only time that: 1) two spacecraft, both commanded by women, were in space at the same time, and 2) that two spacecraft commanded by women performed docked operations with each other.
During the course of Expedition 16, Dr. Whitson performed five spacewalks – the fifth of which was the 100th EVA dedicated to ISS construction.
During these spacewalks, Dr. Whitson became the most experienced female spacewalker in history – which she still holds today – when she surpassed NASA astronaut Sunita Williams’ previous record.
Expedition 16 came to an end in April 2008.
During reentry and landing, the Soyuz’s Propulsion Module failed to properly separate from the Descent Module – triggering a ballistic reentry mode and exposing Dr. Whitson to roughly 8g forces as the Soyuz made a much steeper than planned dive into the atmosphere and landed hundreds of kilometers away from its intended landing site.
Safely on the ground, Dr. Whitson accumulated an additional 191 days 19 hours 8 minutes in space, bringing her cumulative total to 376 days 17 hours 49 minutes.
With this time, Dr. Whitson ranked 29th in terms of all space flyers for most time in space before her Expedition 50, 51, 52 mission.
Moreover, Expedition 16 catapulted her to the distinction of most experienced female space flyer in history.
With Expedition 16 complete, in October 2009, Dr. Whitson was named Chief of the Astronaut Office, a position she held until July 2012.
During her tenure as Chief, Dr. Whitson became the first woman to hold the position, the first non-military person to hold the position, and the first non-pilot to hold the position.
In 2014, Dr. Whitson began training as a backup to Dr. Kate Rubins for the MS-01 flight to the ISS and was subsequently assigned to the MS-03 flight and as Commander for the Expedition 51 increment.
(Images: NASA, Roscosmos)