HOUSTON - A trio of astronauts and one entrepreneur are counting the days remaining before they rocket towards the International Space Station (ISS).
The three-astronaut crew of ISS Expedition 14 and Japanese businessman Daisuke Enomoto are set to launch toward the space station in the upcoming months, some riding a Russian Soyuz into orbit in September while one NASA spaceflyer waits for a December shuttle launch.
"This is a little bit unusual in that we represent not just one mission, Expedition 14, but in fact several," said NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, commander of the next six-month ISS mission. "There's a lot going on, we hope to keep it interesting."
Lopez-Alegria and Expedition 14 flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin are set to launch toward the ISS aboard their Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft in mid-September, with Enomoto aboard for the ride as the fourth paying visitor to the orbital laboratory.
But that's where things get a bit complicated.
Lopez-Alegria and Tyurin will relieve the space station's current crew - Expedition 13 commander Pavel Vinogradov and Jeffrey Williams - but absorb one flight engineer, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Reiter, into their Expedition 14 ranks.
"He can't be with us today because he's busy," Lopez-Alegria told reporters here at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) as he taped Reiter's picture to a dais. "He's in space as a member of STS-121, soon to be Expedition 13."
Reiter launched toward the ISS on July 4 with NASA's STS-121 shuttle crew aboard Discovery and is slated to head back to Earth in December aboard the same orbiter during NASA's STS-116 mission. That shuttle flight will bring NASA astronaut Sunita Williams to join Expedition 14 and stay on through part of the next mission, Expedition 15.
Enomoto, meanwhile, will return with the Expedition 13 crew after about eight days at the ISS.
"This is an exciting time for NASA," Lopez-Alegria said. "We're about to really crank up the assembly of the space station again."
Two veterans, one rookie, many spacewalks
Lopez-Alegria, a U.S. Navy captain, is a veteran of NASA shuttle flights with three spaceflights under his belt between 1995 and 2002.
But it is Tyurin who brings long-duration spaceflight experience to the table. The Russian Federal Space Agency cosmonaut served as a flight engineer for 125 days as part of the station's Expedition 3 crew in 2001.
"It will be very interesting to compare how things became better from my previous flight and to see how we can improve things in the future," Tyurin said. "I think this will be my primary goal."
Williams is making her first spaceflight during Expedition 14, but has aimed for an ISS-bound mission since day one.
"That's all I've ever wanted to do is go live on the space station," Williams said. "We need to figure out what happens to the human body when you're up in space, microgravity, for an extended stay before we go anywhere else."
Lopez-Alegria said the Expedition 14 mission will activate a new solar array - to be shipped to the space station during NASA's STS-115 shuttle flight in late August - and stage three spacewalks within nine days in January 2007. While shuttle missions like STS-121 have staged three spacewalks in five days, long-duration ISS crews have never attempted such a feat, he added.
"The primary objective for that will be to reconfigure the cooling system for the avionics on the space station," Lopez-Alegria said. "Clearly we have some challenges, I think the biggest ones are the limited time we have and all we're trying to accomplish in that time."
With three unmanned Russian Progress cargo ships and up to two shuttle flights to arrive during the Expedition 14 mission, cargo stowage will also be an issue, he said.
"We're going to increase the stowage on the station up to 10 percent during the increment and as you know it's already pretty full," Lopez-Alegria said, adding that the spaceflight will help continue ISS construction.
A paid ticket
Enomoto's ISS arrival will make him the fourth paying visitor to the orbital laboratory at a personal cost of about $20 million. His backup will be U.S. entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, a sponsor of the $10 million suborbital Ansari X Prize competition for privately-developed, reusable spacecraft.
"I really want to go to space," Enomoto, 35, said. "I've had this dream since I was five years old, and that's my motivation."
Enomoto, who goes by the nickname "Dice-K," is an independent investor residing in Hong Kong. Previously, he served as executive vice president and chief strategic officer for Livedoor, an information technology firm, and founded the website DICE-K.com.
His trip to the ISS is the result of a deal between Russia's Federal Space Agency and the Virginia-based firm Space Adventures, which has brokered previous space station visits for wealthy entrepreneurs Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth and - most recently - Gregory Olsen.
"I've purchased a product, but it's not delivered yet," Enomoto said. "So I don't know if it's worth it."
Space Adventures also offers aircraft flights that provide brief periods of weightlessness, rides aboard Russian MiG jets, plans a line of suborbital spacecraft to launch from spaceports in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, as well as $100 million trips around the Moon aboard Soyuz vehicles.
Like Olsen, Enomoto intends to perform some science experiments aboard the ISS for the European Space Agency (ESA) while enjoying the view of Earth from more than 200 miles (321 kilometers) above the planet.
"I want to take a look at the Earth, plus the Moon and the stars," he said.
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