Three Up, Two Down — Busy Time for Space Stations – UPDATE

Three Up, Two Down — Busy Time for Space Stations – UPDATE

Hours apart, three new crew members headed to the International Space Station (ISS) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan while two Chinese astronauts landed in Inner Mongolia after a month aboard China’s Tiangong-2.

The ISS crew, comprised of NASA’s Peggy Whitson, the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Thomas Pesquet, and Roscosmos’s Oleg Novitsky launched at 3:20 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST) November 17, which was 2:20 am November 18 local time at the launch site, aboard the Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft.  They will dock with ISS on Saturday at 5:00 pm EST, joining three crew members already aboard — NASA’s Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos’s Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko.  [UPDATE: The Soyuz MS-03 crew docked with ISS on November 19 as scheduled, but two minutes early at 4:58 pm ET.]

ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries working through ESA.  The 400 metric ton (MT) multi-modular facility has been permanently occupied by international crews rotating on approximately 4-6 month shifts for 16 years.  The various groups of crew members are referred to as “expeditions” and this is Expedition 50.

International Space Station Expedition 50.  Left to Right:  Borisenko, Kimbrough, Ryzhikov, Pesquet, Whitson, Novitsky.  Photo credit:  NASA

This is Whitson’s third spaceflight, Novitsky’s second, and Pesquet’s first.  Whitson’s other two flights also were to ISS and she was the first woman to serve as ISS commander during her second tour in 2008.  She also will serve as commander during this rotation — the only woman to command the ISS twice so far.  At 56, she is the oldest woman to launch into space and did an interview for AARP (available on YouTube) where she talks about the value of age and experience on spaceflights.  (John Glenn became the oldest man to make a spaceflight when he was a member of a space shuttle crew at the age of 77 in 1998.  In 1962, 36 years earlier, he was the first American to orbit the Earth on his only other spaceflight.)

Less than 10 hours after Soyuz MS-03 lifted off from Kazakhstan, China’s Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong returned to Earth aboard their Shenzhou-11 spacecraft after a month on China’s second space station, Tiangong-2.  At 8.6 MT, Tiangong-2 is much smaller than ISS and is not equipped for permanent occupancy.  China has sent mixed messages about whether a second crew will be sent there or if it will wait for its own larger, multi-modular space station.  A three-module 60 MT space station is expected to be completed around 2022. China does plan to send a robotic cargo ship to Tiangong-2 in April.  Named Tianzhou-1, its primary purpose is to test refueling.

China’s human spaceflight program proceeds at a measured pace.  Since 2003, it has launched people into space only six times.  This 32-day mission (30 days on Tiangong-2, 2 days in transit) is China’s longest to date.  Jing and Chen landed at approximately 1:00 am EST (2:00 pm local time in China) some distance from their predicted landing site.  At press time, they still had not exited the capsule.  This was Jing’s third spaceflight and Chen’s first.

Jing Haipeng.  Photo Credit: Xinhua

Chen Dong.  Photo Credit: Xinhua

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