A One-Year Mission for Vande Hei?

A One-Year Mission for Vande Hei?

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei said today his planned 6-month mission to the International Space Station (ISS) could turn into a year-long flight if Russian plans to launch two tourists in the fall go forward.  Just last week, NASA and its Russian counterpart Roscosmos formally assigned Vande Hei to the Soyuz MS-18 crew launching on April 9.

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei. Credit: NASA

During a news conference this morning from Russia’s cosmonaut training center in Star City, Vande Hei said he did not know any of the details of the unusual agreement among Roscosmos, NASA, and the U.S. company Axiom Space that got him one of the three Soyuz MS-18 seats.

Officially, three Russians were assigned to the mission — Oleg Novitsky, Pyotr Dubrov, and Sergey Korsakov — but photographs of Novitsky and Dubrov in training circulating on social media showed them wearing mission patches on their flight suits with Vande Hei’s name, not Korsakov’s, as the third crew member.  When NASA and Roscosmos finally announced their deal last week, it came as little surprise.

Vande Hei revealed today, however, that actually two mission patches were made, one with his name and one with Korsakov’s.  All four of them trained together, not knowing who would be in the third seat. In a show of camaraderie, Vande Hei said he wore the patch with Korsakov’s name and Korsakov wore the one with Vande Hei’s.

He was among the last to know that he finally had been assigned.

This is kind of a funny story, but I found out the same time I think everybody else did. One of my high school friends told my wife that there was a Twitter announcement that said it was finalized. First, the only reason that happened was because it was the middle of the night, I was sound asleep. Otherwise I’m sure I would have found out earlier. I didn’t look at my email until later.  Again, I was just super happy. It was something that had been in the works for months trying to make it happen, lots of challenges that people worked super hard to get actually finalized.

Korsakov was bumped off the flight since there are only three seats, but Russia’s TASS news agency reports he may get to fly to ISS on a U.S. Crew Dragon once NASA and Roscosmos work out a long-term arrangement to fly Americans on Soyuz and Russians on Crew Dragon or Boeing’s Starliner on a no-exchange-of-funds basis for the life of the ISS.

NASA has been trying to get such an agreement for at least three years, but Russia, accustomed to being paid, is balking.  Generally, the two space agencies agree that at least one Russian and one American need to be aboard ISS at all times to operate their respective systems.

Vande Hei added it is also a matter of symbolism.

So there’s operational issues, but there’s also very symbolic issues. We’ve had very successful unbroken cooperation with our international partners, and had human presence there. So I think both operationally and symbolically, it is very important.

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency.  ISS has been permanently occupied by international crews, with at least one Russian and one American, rotating on roughly 4-6 month schedules since November 2000.

As early as 2001, Russia began launching “tourists” to the ISS on their Soyuz spacecraft for prices rumored to be $20 million and up.  Seven tourists made eight flights (one flew twice) until NASA started buying those seats for its astronauts after the space shuttle was terminated and the United States became reliant on Russia to ferry crews back and forth. That reliance ended with the certification of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon last year. Boeing’s Starliner is expected to become operational later this year.

That means Russia can resume selling seats to tourists. Soon after rumors began circulating that U.S. movie star Tom Cruise would fly to ISS to film a movie (a deal not yet confirmed), Russia announced plans to do the same.  The concept calls for launching a yet-to-be-chosen female actress and Russian film director Klim Shipenko to ISS this fall on the next Soyuz mission, Soyuz MS-19.

The tourist missions usually last about a week.  If those tourists fly up to the ISS on Soyuz MS-19, they will return to Earth on Soyuz MS-18, taking up two of the seats with Novitsky in command. That means Vande Hei and Dubrov would have to remain on ISS until the next Soyuz mission 6 months later.

Vande Hei is enthusiastic about the possibility saying it is an opportunity for a new life experience.  He already spent 168 days on ISS on an earlier mission and made four spacewalks.

Trips to Mars will take at least two years. Understanding the effects of the space environment on humans physically and psychologically is critical to successfully achieving that goal and the ISS is one place to do those tests.

Two NASA astronauts have remained on ISS continuously for almost a year. Scott Kelly was there for 340 days with a Russian crewmate, Mikhail Kornienko, in what NASA billed as the “Year in Space” mission, though it was not quite that long. Christina Koch was aboard for 328 days when her mission was unexpectedly extended.

Four Russians stayed in space longer, not on ISS, but on Russia’s space station Mir. The record is held by Valeriy Polyakov (437 days).  Three other Russians were on Mir continuously for a year or more: Sergei Avdeyev (380 days) and Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov (365 days).

In all cases, the long-duration crew members were joined by others coming and going on shorter missions.

Whether Vande Hei and Dubrov become members of the long-duration club is TBD.

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