Space Station Astronauts Settle in for Six-Month Mission
NASA Science officer and Expedition 13 flight engineer Jeffrey Williams poses for a photograph while floating in microgravity inside the International Space Station (ISS).
Credit: NASA/JSC.

Two astronauts in Earth orbit are settling into the International Space Station (ISS) for what they expect to be a busy six-month spaceflight.

ISS Expedition 13 commander Pavel Vinogradov and flight engineer Jeffrey Williams are completing their first full week in charge of orbital laboratory since arriving at the station on April 1. They relieved the station’s former tenants – Expedition 12 commander Bill McArthur and flight engineer Valery Tokarev – who had concluded their own six-month mission.

“We’re settling in very well,” Williams told SPACE.com Thursday during a space-to-ground linkup. “We had a good handover with Bill and Valery, they left the station in very good shape.”

McArthur and Tokarev returned to Earth on April 8 with Brazil’s first astronaut Marcos Pontes, who launched toward the ISS with the Expedition 13 crew on March 29.

A quick match

While most ISS crews train together for years before launching into space, changes in crew rotation plans gave Williams – who originally trained to command a station flight and served as McArthur’s Expedition 12 backup – and Vinogradov about seven months to mesh as a crew.

“It was a scramble,” said Williams, a U.S. Army colonel, from orbit last week during a video exchange with U.S. Army officials. “Pavel and I did not know each other very well.”

NASA officials said Williams’ shift to Expedition 13 occurred after shuttle launch delays in Fall 2005 pushed the agency’s next ISS-bound orbiter flight well into 2006. The reassignment allowed future ISS crewmembers who have trained for specific ISS spacewalk or assembly tasks to be matched with their expected workload, NASA said.

Williams said he cut short his October vacation plans to train with Vinogradov and ensure the success of Expedition 13.

“Like a good Army soldier, I think all of us in the program currently and historically are trained to stand up and do as we’re asked,” he said.

In the meantime, NASA’s Discovery shuttle is expected to visit the ISS during the STS-121 orbiter flight in July. Williams and Vinogradov hope to then welcome an addition to their mission, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter, who will return the station crew complement to its regular three-person crew size for the first time since the 2003 Columbia accident.

“We’re very much looking forward to his arrival,” Williams said Thursday of Reiter. “We’ve got a place on our patch where we can add his name, too.”

Two spacewalks and a second shuttle visit – STS-115 aboard Atlantis, which includes the installation of a new set of solar arrays outside the ISS – are also scheduled during the Expedition 13 mission.

Space station veteran

Despite the late crew change, the Expedition 13 astronauts are both experienced space flyers.

That goes double for Vinogradov, who learned the art of pacing himself after 198 days in space aboard Russia’s Mir Space Station during his Expedition 24 flight between August 1997 and February 1998.

“In a short duration flight, you can grin and bear it since it’s not that long, you can take it,” Vinogradov said before the Expedition 13 launch. “But in a long-term flight, things like fatigue and irritability arise. Knowing that beforehand and counteracting those things is where experience comes in.”

A native of Magadan, Russia and father of a 12-year-old daughter, Vinogradov joined the Federal Space Agency’s cosmonaut ranks in 1992 after years of service with the country’s Head Design Bureau RSC Energia, where his wife also works. But becoming a cosmonaut was not something he initially thought achievable.

“At the time, I thought that I was not worthy of becoming an astronaut because astronauts and cosmonauts had special qualities that I didn’t have,” Vinogradov, 52, said before his flight, adding that it was only after working alongside actual space flyers that he gained confidence. “I saw that I could do their job as good as them, potentially, and that gave me the courage to write up an application in 1982.”

The delay between his initial application at Energia and acceptance was prolonged by Russia’s Buran shuttle program, since officials wanted him to wait until the orbiter was ready to fly. It was only after the Buran program was scrapped that Vinogradov reached space.

A worthy endeavor

Vinogradov said Thursday that despite its complexity, human spaceflight is a worthy endeavor not just for individual nations, but the world at large.

“Today it doesn’t really matter whose country sends their citizens into space,” Vinogradov told SPACE.com. “It’s an achievement for all humankind.”

Not only was the Expedition 13 crew in orbit during Russia’s 45th anniversary of the first manned spaceflight by cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin, but also the 25th anniversary of NASA’s first shuttle flight this week, Vinogradov said.

“It’s very symbolic that on the same day, roads have started that eventually merged into one road, and I believe this is the road we’re traveling now, the International Space Station,” he added.

Astronaut Army colonel

Williams, 48, is making his second trip to space after a 10-day trip to the ISS in May 2000 aboard NASA’s Atlantis orbiter during the STS-101 mission.

“The flight, I’ve concluded, is the easy part,” Williams said before launch, adding that the more than three years of spaceflight training has been the hardest challenge on himself, his wife Anna-Marie and family. “It’s a continually difficult thing to do. You’re continuously jetlagged and there’s a feeling of isolation. It’s very challenging and stressful on families, and I’ve learned a lot through the experience.”

A father of two grown sons, ages 24 and 21, Williams hails from the small town of Winter, Wisconsin – where his parents Lloyd and Eunice still reside – and took a piece of home with him when he launched into orbit.

“They just celebrated their 100th centennial year and they produced a little booklet on the town, I brought one of those booklets to fly and then return to the town,” Williams said, adding that he also took photographs from Winter’s early days that have ties to his own family.

Reading – and having – The Right Stuff

The seed that grew into William’s astronaut career was planted while he was a U.S. Army cadet at West Point, where he learned the Army had pilots and joined the sport parachute team. But it was author Tom Wolfe’s spaceflight treatise The Right Stuff that set Williams on the astronaut path.

“I don’t know why, but I read that book and I learned about test flight and the history of the astronaut program and that’s when I set it as a lifetime goal,” Williams said. “I did not like the movie, but I loved the book.”

Williams said he’s looking forward to the next six months in orbit, but for the near-term will settle for making his own imprint on the space station.

“When you move into a new place…there’s always some thing you want to do to tailor it for yourself,” he said Thursday. “That’s what we’ve been doing in our spare time.”