Three ISS Crew Members Return to Earth Amidst Pandemic

Three ISS Crew Members Return to Earth Amidst Pandemic

Two NASA astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut returned to Earth overnight after many months in isolation aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Ordinarily returning ISS crew members are welcomed with hugs by family, friends and colleagues, but this time will be different because of the coronavirus pandemic.  One of the astronauts thinks being on Earth separated from family and friends will feel even more isolated than being on the ISS.

NASA astronauts Drew Morgan and Jessica Meir and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka undocked from the ISS at 9:53 pm ET and landed in Kazakhstan at 1:16:43 am ET, April 17.

Morgan was on ISS for nine months, having arrived on July 20, 2019 on Soyuz MS-13.  Meir and Skripochka came aboard on September 25 on Soyuz MS-15, the spacecraft that is bringing them home.

Morgan’s Soyuz MS-13 crew mates, Russia’s Aleksandr Skvortsov and Italy’s Luca Parmitano, have been home since February 6.  They were joined on their return by NASA’s Christina Koch as crew rotations were juggled to accommodate a spaceflight participant from the United Arab Emirates, Hazzaa Al Mansouri, who stayed for one week in the fall.

Morgan and Meir are completing their first spaceflight.  For Skripochka, this is his third.

Source: NASA TV

Last week, their replacements arrived: NASA’s Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos’s Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. The ISS crew size is limited to three instead of six while awaiting flights of the new U.S. commercial crew systems that are under development.  Only Russia’s Soyuz has been able to transport crews to and from ISS since the U.S. space shuttle program was terminated in 2011. Russia has cut back the number of annual Soyuz flights from four to two because the new U.S. systems were supposed to be ready by now.

NASA hopes that the crewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will take place in mid-late May. That would bring two more NASA astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, aboard for several months. If all goes well, that will pave the way for operational SpaceX flights and the crew size then actually will be able to grow to seven, since Crew Dragon will transport four astronauts instead of three like Soyuz once it has been certified by NASA.  Boeing’s Starliner can also transport four.  Problems with Starliner’s uncrewed test flight in December led Boeing to decide to redo that test.  It is not clear when a crewed test flight will take place.

In a media teleconference last week when Morgan, Meir and Cassidy were all on board, Meir was asked about what it will be like returning to Earth amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.  She thinks being separated from family and friends back here will make her feel more isolated than during her months on ISS.

From left, NASA astronauts Drew Morgan, Jessica Meir, and Chris Cassidy aboard ISS, April 10, 2020. Screengrab from NASA TV.

It certainly will be difficult for me to not be able to give some hugs to my family and friends…. I think that I will actually feel more isolated on the Earth than I did up here, just because that’s part of our expected routine up here and we’re so busy with so many other amazing pursuits and we have this incredible vantage point of the Earth below that we don’t really feel as much of that isolation.

When you’re back in your homes and the kind of isolation that everybody is dealing with right now and you can see all of those … people but you just can’t do anything with them or experience them at all, I think that it makes it even more difficult.  So we’ll see how it goes, and how I adjust, but it will of course be wonderful to see some family and friends at least virtually and from a distance for now. — Jessica Meir

By happenstance, their April 17 landing date is the 50th anniversary of the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew.  Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise survived a harrowing journey around the Moon in April 1970 when an explosion in the service module severely damaged their Apollo spacecraft.  Their bravery and the ingenuity of the ground control team in getting them back to Earth is being celebrated, if virtually, this week.  Lovell, Haise and the flight directors that led the team will participate in a Facebook Live event sponsored by the San Diego Air & Space Museum Friday afternoon.  (Swigert died in 1982.)


Note: This article was updated after the landing.

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