NASA astronaut Christina Koch is going to break a record on her first spaceflight, the agency announced yesterday (April 16).
Koch, who launched to the space station on March 14 with colleague Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, will remain in orbit for 328 days, returning to Earth in February 2020, according to the new flight schedule. Her colleague, NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan, who is scheduled to make his first flight in July, will also remain in orbit for longer than usual, returning in the spring of 2020.
Scott Kelly holds the record for NASA's longest continuous spaceflight at 340 days, a record Koch will not be breaking. But she will likely surpass the current record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman: Currently, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson holds that record with 288 days.
The newly announced schedule is the result of conversations between NASA, the Russian space agency Roscosmos and other International Space Station partners. Space station missions typically last for about six and a half months. One motivation for the unusual flight schedule, NASA officials explained, was to gather more data on how human bodies respond to longer spaceflights.
"Astronauts demonstrate amazing resilience and adaptability in response to long duration spaceflight exposure," Jennifer Fogarty, chief scientist of the Human Research Program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in the statement. "This will enable successful exploration missions with healthy, performance-ready astronauts. NASA is looking to build on what we have learned with additional astronauts in space for more than 250 days. Christina's extended mission will provide additional data for NASA's Human Research Program and continue to support future missions to the Moon and Mars."
There's a more pragmatic reasons for the shuffled schedule as well. The United Arab Emirates has been looking to fly Hazzaa Ali Almansoori as the country's first astronaut. The new schedule confirms he will launch as a Russian spaceflight participant, lifting off on Sept. 25 and returning to Earth on Oct. 3.
During that return, he will be joined by Koch's original flightmates, Hague and Ovchinin. The duo was originally scheduled to arrive in October, but a failure of their Soyuz rocket sent them plummeting back to Earth.
All that means there are plenty of launches and landings to look forward to for spaceflight fans. The three astronauts on board the station right now with Koch and her flightmates — NASA's Anne McClain, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko — will return to Earth on June 24, wrapping up their six-month stays.
On July 20, Morgan will launch with European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov. Crew launches are always soaked in tradition, particularly the history of Russian spaceflight aboard the Soyuz, but this flight will be on another level entirely, as the crew launches on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Then, on Sept. 25, NASA astronaut Jessica Meir and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka will launch with Almansoori. For a week, nine crewmembers will share the station's quarters before the orbiting laboratory returns to its typical six-person crew.
On the NASA side of these flights, many of the astronauts will be working with close friends: McClain, Koch, Hague, Meir and Morgan were all members of the same astronaut training class, selected in 2013.
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Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.