ISS Astronauts Settle in for Six Months in Orbit
Expedition 12 commander Bill McArthur (right) and flight engineer Valery Tokarev pose for a portrait. The two astronauts are set to conduct the twelfth expedition to the International Space Station (ISS).
Credit: NASA/JPL.

Two astronauts finished their second week in charge of the International Space Station (ISS) Friday while preparing to conduct orbital repairs and their mission's first spacewalk.

ISS Expedition 12 commander Bill McArthur and flight engineer Valery Tokarev are now well into their six-month mission aboard the space station, though time seems to have flown for the veteran astronauts.

"It's hard to believe that 20 days have already passed," McArthur told students in Germany Thursday during a question and answer session from space. "It seems like such a short time for us."

McArthur and Tokarev launched into space late Sept. 30 EDT and docked at the ISS on Oct. 3 with U.S. space tourist Gregory Olsen. They took command of the orbital laboratory late Oct. 10, after the station's previous crew - Expedition 11 commander Sergei Krikalev and flight engineer John Phillips - left the ISS with Olsen.

Tokarev said that despite spending three weeks in Earth orbit, he does not yet feel nostalgic for his terrestrial stomping grounds.

"In a couple or three months I'll tell you what I'm missing," he told the students.

The Expedition 12 crew spent this week going over plans for their first spacewalk, a Nov. 7 extravehicular activity (EVA) to be performed in U.S.-built spacesuits, performing a kidney stone experiment and working with station's new Pulmonary Function System, which analyzes exhaled gases aboard the ISS.

On Friday, the two astronauts briefly reactivated the space station's Elektron oxygen generator - which switched off last week due to a low water supply - before it shut down once more. Additional trouble shooting is slated for Saturday, NASA officials said, adding that Russian flight controllers also plan to test the engines of an unmanned Progress 19 on Wednesday following a failed reboost maneuver earlier this week.

But both astronauts are looking forward to the upcoming spacewalk, which will be the first ISS EVA to be performed in U.S. space suits since Expedition 6 in 2003.

"It looks like we'll get to do the first two-person EVA in the U.S. suits on the U.S. segment since we've gone a two person crew," McArthur told SPACE.com during a space-to-ground interview earlier this month. "We think that will be a big challenge for us."

ISS crews have been limited to two astronauts, rather than the typical three, since the NASA's Columbia shuttle accident. Since then, the two-astronaut crews have left the ISS empty during spacewalks, but have relied on Russian Orlan spacesuits.

An astronaut's final flight

Hailing from Wakulla, North Carolina, the 54-year-old McArthur is a veteran three past shuttle flights and visited both Russia's Mir space station and the ISS during his astronaut career. But Expedition 12, his first long-duration mission, will likely be the icing on the cake.

"I anticipate that this will be the last flight of my astronaut career," McArthur, a retired U.S. Army colonel, told reporters before launching into orbit. "My previous experiences seemed like vacations in space, or visits to space, and I always wanted the opportunity to live in space."

Before his flight, McArthur told SPACE.com that it was one night in October 2000, while he slept in an ISS node during NASA's STS-92 shuttle flight, that he decided to shift toward a space station mission.

"It just dawned on me that, more and more, this was something that would be like the next step," said McArthur, whose wife and two daughters watched him launch toward the ISS form Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

McArthur had hoped that he and Tokarev would join European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter aboard the ISS for Expedition 12. But Reiter's shuttle flight, STS-121, has been delayed until at least May 2006 as NASA works through ongoing foam debris and hurricane recovery efforts.

"It's hard to convey how much more effective the crew is when we have a few more people," McArthur told SPACE.com from orbit on Oct. 6. "We are disappointed not to have a third crewmember."

But McArthur, who also serves as NASA's Science Officer for Expedition 12, said that the need to explore space is a fundamental part of the human spirit.

"I've always been interested in things that leave the surface of the Earth," he said in a preflight interview. "There is no arena in which we challenge our technical ability greater than when we send people into space."

From horses to orbit

Tokarev, 52, is also flying his first long-duration spaceflight with Expedition 12, though life in Earth orbit was not always his goal.

A veteran cosmonaut with Russia's Federal Space Agency, Tokarev initially planned to be a fighter pilot - which seemed almost unattainable during his youth in the village of Kap-Yar in the country's Astrakhan Region.

"When I grew up in my small village, I couldn't ever imagine what it meant to be a cosmonaut," Tokarev, also a father of two, told SPACE.com in a preflight interview. "It was just so far from our reality."

But the local library was much closer. Tokarev pored through books of World War 2 fighter pilots and ultimately rose to the rank of colonel in the Russian Air Force. In the mid-1980s, Russia began its Buran shuttle program and Tokarev reported to become a test cosmonaut.

"I was interested in how to fly out of the atmosphere," Tokarev said, though he would have to wait until 1999 to reach orbit, and then aboard NASA's Discovery shuttle as a member of the STS-96 crew.

Tokarev spent 10 days in space during that flight to the ISS, then returned to Earth to prepare for his next mission.

"Every time you look at the Earth, at our planet, your memory reminds you of some situation with your family or friends," Tokarev said, adding that despite reaching into low-Earth orbit, never forgets his home planet. "So we stay on orbit, but we grew up on Earth."

Tokarev will perform the first spacewalks of his cosmonaut career - McArthur has two under his belt from STS-92 - during Expedition 12, and will celebrate his 53rd birthday in space on Oct. 29. The space station, he said, is just one in a series of steps into space for humans, with the Moon as the next logical choice.

"It's probably just an initial step," he told students Thursday. "But it's not so easy to do it."