Two astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are spending their last weeks in orbit as they await the upcoming launch of their relief crew and one paying space tourist.
ISS Expedition 11 commander Sergei Krikalev and flight engineer John Phillips are set to return to Earth on Oct. 10 after handing control over to their replacements - Expedition 12's Bill McArthur and Valery Tokarev. The landing will end a six-month mission that saw one spacewalk, a new spaceflight record and the first NASA shuttle flight to the ISS since November 2002.
"This crew has done very well," said James Locke, NASA's lead flight surgeon for Expedition 11, during a press briefing at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. "In some cases, [ISS astronauts] are actually in better shape than when they left, and I suspect that's the case here."
In orbit, astronauts sometimes have more time to exercise, which prevents excessive bone and muscle loss in microgravity, than during flight training, Locke said.
Meanwhile, a fresh Soyuz TMA-7 spacecraft is just over one day away from launching the Expedition 12 crew into space with U.S. scientist Gregory Olsen, a fare-paying participant who is paying about $20 million for the orbital ride. The space-bound trio will launch on Sept. 30 at 11:54 p.m. EDT (0354 Oct. 1) GMT.
A job well done
NASA ISS officials said that Krikalev and Phillips have had a great mission despite some uncertainty early in the flight as to when Discovery would arrive at the station.
Slated to arrive in mid-May - about one month after Krikalev and Phillips arrived at the space station - Discovery docked at the ISS in late July, delivering six tons of vital spare parts, supplies and science equipment to the orbital platform.
Discovery's ISS flight marked NASA's first shuttle flight since the 2003 loss of Columbia, which disintegrated during reentry on Feb. 1, 2003, killing its crew. Wing damage from external tank foam debris at launch was cited as the accident's cause.
Krikalev and Phillips also anticipated a second shuttle flight to the ISS during their mission - STS-121 aboard Atlantis - which was slated to deliver more supplies and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter to the ISS. Reiter's arrival would have brought the ISS back up to a three-person crew complement, but was delayed due launch debris concerns raised during Discovery's liftoff. He is slated to fly aboard Discovery - now flying STS-121 - sometime in 2006.
But despite the delays, Krikalev and Phillips managed to complete all of their planned science tasks, including the completion of a long-running ultrasound experiment that tested astronauts' abilities to scan crewmates with guidance from ground-based scientists, NASA officials said. The experiment will aid remote medicine practices here on Earth, they added.
"John performed the first-ever voice-only scan, where the ground couldn't see what he was seeing," explained ISS program scientist Don Thomas during the briefing. "It was an extremely difficult thing to do."
Krikalev and Phillips also conducted one spacewalk to retrieve experiments on the station's exterior and outfit the laboratory with antennas to be used by an unmanned European cargo ship expected next year.
Krikalev continues to set a new record for total time spent in space during his cosmonaut career after breaking the record on Aug. 16. To date, he has spent 791 total days and counting in Earth orbit.
Relief crew awaits launch
While the Expedition 11 crew prepares for landing, the Expedition 12 crew and Olsen are counting down toward launch.
McArthur, a NASA astronaut, will command Expedition 12 with cosmonaut Valery Tokarev of the Russian Federal Space Agency serving as flight engineer. With the delayed launch of STS-121 and Reiter - who would have stayed on for Expedition 12 - McArthur and Tokarev are one astronaut short, forcing increment planners to shuffle the crew's task plans for the mission.
"The major challenges we're facing now is crew time," Expedition 12 increment manager Pete Hasbrook. "We've got a lot do with fewer crew...we're going to revise our priorities."
McArthur and Tokarev are scheduled to perform at least one spacewalk in November clad in U.S. spacesuits, and another in December using Russian Orlan spacesuits, mission managers said. A third spacewalk in February 2006 may also be performed depending on time, they added.
Meanwhile, the two astronauts have 13 primary science programs for their flight, though some studies - such as the Foot experiment to compare differences in the body's use of its lower extremities in orbit and on Earth - depends on when the hardware arrives at the ISS. Some science hardware was slated to arrive with STS-121, mission managers said.
NASA's shuttle flight delays also complicated plans for McArthur's return to Earth.
The astronaut initially planned to return to Earth aboard a NASA space shuttle in May 2006, after 213 days in orbit, about one month after Tokarev left the ISS aboard their Soyuz TMA-7 spacecraft. With the launch date of NASA next shuttle far from certain, U.S. and Russian ISS officials agreed to return McArthur via Soyuz with Tokarev.
"The current plan shows him coming home on the [Soyuz] in the spring," Hasbrook said.
Under a bilateral agreement with Russia, Soyuz TMA-7 is the last Soyuz with a seat for a NASA astronaut available at no charge, though the space agency would have been unable to procure more flights due to the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000. The act bars the U.S. purchase of Russian human spaceflight hardware so long as Russia continues to aid Iran's pursuit of nuclear and advanced weapons technology.
Last week, the U.S. Senate approved a bill that would clear NASA to purchase additional Soyuz flights in the future.
Space tourist set to fly
Riding up to the ISS with the Expedition 12 crew Friday is an eager Gregory Olsen, a U.S. scientist and entrepreneur who is paying $20 million to visit the space station.
Olsen's trip, brokered with the Russian Federal Space Agency by the space tourism firm Space Adventures, will make him the third fare-paying visitor to the ISS after the 2002 flight of Mark Shuttleworth and 2001 launch of Dennis Tito. Space Adventures also brokered the flights of Shuttleworth and Tito as well.
"He's free to go anywhere on the space station that he'd like," said Kirk Shireman, NASA's ISS operations and integration manager, of Olsen. "He's been trained on the basic U.S. systems so he'll know what to do in an emergency if he's in the U.S. segment."
Shireman added that Olsen will also have access to the station's telephone and e-mail services as well.
Olsen, founder of the Princeton, New Jersey-based Sensors Unlimited, Inc., will spend about one week aboard the ISS before returning to Earth with the Expedition 11 crew. He will perform a trio of experiments for the European Space Agency (ESA) and observe the Earth, NASA officials said.
Expedition 12 lead flight director Sally Davis said Olsen is trained and ready for his flight.
"He's looking very much forward to being onboard station," Davis said, adding that Olsen is well-versed in alarm and egress procedures. "In a phrase, I'd say he gets it."
- Gregory Olsen: Third Space Tourist Aims for Orbit
- Complete Coverage: ISS Expedition 11
- Complete Coverage: ISS Expedition 12