Space Station Commander Sets U.S. Spaceflight Record
Astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, Expedition 14 commander and NASA space station science officer, drinks a beverage in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA/JSC.

NASA has a new spaceflight champion in astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, who is setting a new record aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for the longest mission by a U.S. spaceflyer.

As of Tuesday, Lopez-Alegria has lived and worked aboard the space station for more than 197 days and counting, breaking NASA's previous record of 196 days set in 2002 by Expedition 4 astronauts Carl Walz and Dan Bursch. By the time Lopez-Alegria returns to Earth on April 20 with crewmate Mikhail Tyurin, a cosmonaut with Russia's Federal Space Agency, they will have spent 214 days in space since their September 2006 launch.

ISS flight controllers congratulated Lopez-Alegria, who commands the space station's Expedition 14 crew, as he hit the 197-day mark, though the veteran spaceflyer said he doesn't expect the title to stick.

"You know it's kind of being like Barry Bonds and...Albert Pujos playing on the same team," Lopez-Alegria, an avid baseball fan, said referring to professional ballplayers. "I have a feeling my record isn't going to last very long, and I know exactly who is going to break it."

Lopez-Alegria was referring to fellow NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, an Expedition 14 flight engineer, who will stay aboard the ISS after to join the station's Expedition 15 crew after he and Tyurin return to Earth. Williams is due to return to Earth aboard NASA's space shuttle Endeavour in July, though the delayed launch of next shuttle flight - STS-117 aboard Atlantis - will delay the astronaut's homecoming until later this summer. By mid-July, she will surpass Lopez-Alegria's 214-day record for NASA's longest continuous spaceflight.

"Your glory days in the hot sun may not last long," flight controllers told Lopez-Alegria.

But with 10 spacewalks and more than 67 hours of spacewalking time - half of it performed during Expedition 14 - under his belt, Lopez-Alegria still tops NASA's list as the most experienced U.S. spacewalker. Williams too, with four spacewalks and more 27 hours during Expedition 14, holds the title for the most spacewalks performed by a female astronaut.

The world record for the longest single spaceflight is held by Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, who spent 438 days in space aboard Russia's Mir Space Station between 1994 and 1995.