A Human Spaceflight Extravaganza — Vande Hei Home, NS-20 Up and Back, Two Crews Readying for ISS

A Human Spaceflight Extravaganza — Vande Hei Home, NS-20 Up and Back, Two Crews Readying for ISS

It’s a human spaceflight extravaganza. Mark Vande Hei got home to Houston this morning after almost a year on the International Space Station as two more crews get ready to head there and Blue Origin successfully completed its first suborbital passenger flight to space this year. Once the province of only a carefully selected few, space is increasingly becoming accessible to a broader swath of explorers.

Mark Vande Hei walks off a NASA Gulfstream jet at Ellington Field near Houston, TX, March 31, 2022. Credit: NASA

The day began with NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei returning home to Houston after landing in Kazakhstan yesterday, setting a new U.S. continuous spaceflight duration record of 355 days.

NASA did not provide live coverage of his arrival, but posted a photo of him as he walked off NASA’s Gulfstream jet — unaided — that flew him back to the United States.

At a press conference later in the day about another NASA crew getting ready to launch, Deputy ISS Program Manager Dana Weigel said Vande Hei was feeling fine, with “no issues at all” other than dizziness and other reactions to the return to Earth’s gravity experienced by astronauts on even shorter duration missions.

Less than an hour after he set foot in southern Texas, another spaceflight took off from the western part of the state. Blue Origin’s New Shepard-20 suborbital rocket lifted off from its launch site near Van Horn taking five paying passengers and one Blue Origin employee on a brief trip across the imaginary line that separates air and space.

NS-20, as its name suggests, was the 20th flight of the reusable New Shepard rocket, named after America’s first man in space, Alan Shepard, who made a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961. This was only the fourth to carry people, however, and the first for 2022.

Blue Origin NS-20 crew, L-R: Gary Lai, Jim Kitchen, Marty Allen, Marc and Sharon Hagle, and George Nield. Credit Blue Origin.

Aboard the flight was Blue Origin’s own Gary Lai, Chief Architect of the New Shepard system. He was a last minute addition to the crew after Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson had to bow out because the flight was postponed for a week.

The other five crew members were paying passengers: Marty Allen, a turnaround CEO and angel investor who once headed Party America; the husband and wife team of Marc Hagle, president and CEO of Tricor International, and Sharon Hagle, founder of SpaceKids Global; Jim Kitchen, a business professor at the University of North Carolina who has visited all 193 U.N. recognized countries on Earth and wanted to add space to his journey of exploration; and George Nield, president of Commercial Space Technologies. For many years, Nield headed the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which promotes, facilitates and regulates the commercial space launch business, including commercial human spaceflights like this.

The NS-20 trip lasted just 10 minutes and 4 seconds, but the capsule reached an altitude of 107 kilometers (66.5 miles), crossing the internationally-recognized threshold of 100 km (80 mi) that delineates where space begins (others use 80 km/50 miles).

The launch was delayed for more than 45 minutes because of a communications issue that had to be resolved and just minutes after they landed, the first of two NASA press conferences began for the launch of the next NASA-sponsored crew to the ISS, scheduled for April 20.

Crew-4 will be the fourth operational launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on a NASA-sponsored mission, but the seventh crewed mission for the company overall.

The first was a test flight for NASA, Demo-2, in 2020. Then Crew-1 and Crew-2 for NASA. The fourth was Inspiration4, the first orbital U.S. private astronaut flight, which did not visit the ISS. Next was NASA’s Crew-3. They are on the ISS right now and Crew-4 will replace them.

The Axiom-1 crew is scheduled for launch to the ISS on April 6. L-R: Larry Connor, Mark Pathy, Michael López-Alegria, Eytan Stibbe. Photo credit: Axiom Space.

But before Crew-4 launches, another private astronaut mission will take flight. Axiom-1 with one Axiom employee (a former NASA astronaut) and three paying passengers, will launch on April 6. They will be the first U.S.-launched private astronaut crew to visit the ISS. Russia has launched private astronauts, often called space tourists, to the ISS for years and several were Americans, but the Axiom-1 crew is the first to launch on a U.S. spacecraft from U.S. soil. The crew actually is international:  Michael López-Alegria (U.S./Spain), Larry Connor (U.S.), Mark Pathy (Canada), and Eytan Stibbe (Israel).

Axiom-1 was set to launch on April 3, but NASA decided to conduct a Wet Dress Rehearsal for its new Space Launch System rocket on an adjacent pad this weekend, bumping Axiom-1 to April 6.  Crew-4 was scheduled for April 19, but today NASA announced it will wait another day to give a little more leeway after Axiom-1 splashes down at the end of its 10-day mission, eight of which will be docked with the ISS.

Crew-4 (L-R), scheduled for launch on April 20: Bob Hines (NASA), Samantha Cristoforett (ESA/Italy), Jessica Watkins (NASA), and Kjell Lindgren (NASA). Photo credit: NASA

Crew-4 is the next regular crew rotation flight for the ISS. NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines and Jessica Watkins and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will be there for a roughly 5-month mission.

Except for visitors like Axiom-1, the regular ISS crew complement is seven people. Crew-4’s companions for most of their time on the ISS will be three Russian cosmonauts who arrived two weeks ago: Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergei Korsakov.

Lindgren said today while they are not “immune to the geopolitical situation” created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they are focused on their job of maintaining the ISS and conducting science experiments. They’ve trained with their Russian counterparts and “very much look forward to getting on orbit and working with our Russian colleagues, our friends, and having a safe and successful mission and getting everybody back home safely.”

Who will be aboard the next NASA-sponsored mission, Crew-5, is in limbo. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, NASA and Russia’s Roscosmos were close to signing a crew exchange agreement where U.S. astronauts would continue to launch on Soyuz spacecraft and Russian cosmonauts would launch on U.S. spacecraft on a no-exchange-of-funds basis. Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina, the only woman in Russia’s cosmonaut corps, was expected to be assigned to Crew-5 and NASA’s Frank Rubio to the next Soyuz mission, Soyuz MS-22.

During the first of the two Crew-4 news conferences today, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Lueders said the paperwork is in the hands of the Russian government right now and it is not clear if agreement will be reached in time for training to be completed before Crew-5’s launch in September. None of the NASA officials at the briefing were willing to say when they need to know for sure one way or the other, instead expressing hope it will work out and that they have a little more time before deciding.

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