Chris Cassidy On Track for 6-Month ISS Visit Despite Coronavirus

Chris Cassidy On Track for 6-Month ISS Visit Despite Coronavirus

The global coronavirus pandemic is changing a few pre-launch plans, but will not prevent a new crew from launching to the International Space Station next month. Soyuz MS-16 will deliver two Russian cosmonauts and NASA’s Chris Cassidy for a 6-month mission aboard the orbiting facility. Cassidy sounded upbeat during interviews this morning, though disappointed that family and friends will not be on hand for the launch.

Cassidy arrived in Star City, Russia, outside Moscow, on March 1 for a final few weeks of training. Two weeks before the April 9 launch, he and his crewmates, Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, will fly to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the launch site for missions to the ISS.  Crews routinely are quarantined during these final weeks, with the two weeks at Baikonur more rigorous than while at Star City.

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy (left) with crewmates Anatoly Ivanishin (center) and Ivan Vagner (right).  Credit: NASA

During a series of media interviews this morning, Cassidy was repeatedly asked if the quarantine procedures are any different now because of the coronavirus.

“This past week, had it been a normal quarantine, I probably could have gone out to some restaurants and left the immediate parameters of the Star City area, … but not this time. We’ve been sort of isolated to our cottages and to essential places to go to get food.”

Another change is that everyone else also is under some sort of quarantine.  “Social distancing applies to everybody” there and the streets of Moscow, about 30 miles away, are “quiet and empty like you see in the rest of the world.”

The major impact for him is that family and friends will not be allowed at Baikonur for the launch.  Neither will the media or the crowds of supporters who usually cheer the cosmonauts as they board buses to the launch pad. “It will be completely quiet, there won’t be anybody there.  We’ll just sort of walk out.”

Unrelated to the coronavirus, another big change for Cassidy is his crewmates.  He was in training with Nikolai Tikhonov and Andrei Babkin, but Tikhonov suffered an injury and, since they train together as crews, both were replaced by their backups in February.  Cassidy confirmed that it was an eye injury that sidelined Tikhonov, but said he is recovering well and  could get back into the crew rotation later this year.

“I was crushed, actually, that we were swapping [crews] because they were my really dear friends and I was looking forward to spending 6 months on board the ISS with them. …  My heart hurt for my two friends who thought they were so close to a rocket launch.”

But he has known Ivanishin and Vagner for several years and they have been training together as the backup crew.  In the past few weeks they have been in simulators together and are “ready to go.”

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy answering media questions from Star City, Russia, March 19, 2020. Screengrab from NASA TV.

This is Cassidy’s third spaceflight.  He flew on the space shuttle in 2009 and spent almost six months on ISS in 2013.  This is Ivanishin’s third visit to the ISS, having been there in 2011-2012 and in 2016.  Vagner is making the journey for the first time.

The ISS has been permanently occupied by international crews rotating on roughly 4-6 month schedules since November 2000.

Cassidy revealed that mission planners are considering whether he should conduct a spacewalk in the first few days he is aboard ISS.  There is only a one-week handover period when the current crew and his crew will all be on ISS at the same time.  NASA prefers to have a full space station complement of six when spacewalks are conducted, with four crew on the inside to support the two spacewalkers on the outside.

At the moment, however, there are only three because the SpaceX and Boeing U.S. commercial crew systems are not ready.  They were supposed to be flying by now, so Russia cut back the number of Soyuz launches from four to two per year.  Each Soyuz can accommodate three people and the three there now — NASA’s Drew Morgan and Jessica Meir and Russia’s Oleg Skripochka — are headed home eight days after Cassidy arrives.  Morgan has been there since July 20; Meir and Skripochka since September 25.

How long the ISS crew will be limited to three is on everyone’s mind.  NASA and SpaceX announced yesterday that they are planning for SpaceX’s crewed flight test, Demo-2, to take place in mid-late May.  NASA still has not said whether those two astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, will extend their stay beyond the week-long test flight originally planned.

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