A NASA astronaut is getting ready for her first trip in space, which will relieve one of her colleagues who was unexpectedly there for a year.
NASA astronaut Loral O'Hara is scheduled to launch on Sept. 15 alongside two cosmonauts from Russia. O'Hara, Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub will launch aboard the Soyuz MS-24 spacecraft from the Russia-run Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. You can watch the launch here live on Space.com, via NASA Television.
O'Hara's preparation for space hit a snag late last year. A Soyuz spacecraft docked to the International Space Station (ISS) unexpectedly sprang a leak, eventually forcing the Russian space agency Roscosmos to send up an empty replacement spacecraft — the MS-23 vehicle, which was supposed to be O'Hara's ride to space. The situation pushed O'Hara's launch date back by six months until a new spacecraft was ready. The crew on the ISS also had to wait, as they are tasked to leave when their relief arrives.
During a recent set of media interviews, O'Hara said that she has been in touch with NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, one of the three crewmembers whose stay doubled from six to 12 months, to discuss getting ready for her arrival. (The others awaiting MS-24's arrival are Roscosmos' Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin.)
"I video chatted with Frank Rubio, who's onboard space station right now waiting for me to get there so he can come home," O'Hara said on Aug. 23 during interviews available on YouTube.
But, as O'Hara told Space.com during a phone interview that day, she's used to dealing with tough challenges in remote environments. For example, she's an engineer who has worked with deep-sea research submersibles.
"You have to do all of your work with whatever you have on hand, the materials that you have on hand," she said. "Then you're also just working in a small operational group, so getting along with your teammates. Dealing with issues as they come up, then just kind of working through all of those challenges."
O'Hara is part of NASA's 2017 astronaut candidate class, which had a nearly equal split of men and women upon selection. She passed her basic training in 2020, allowing her to be eligible for spaceflight. Many astronauts wait years for the opportunity to go into space. O'Hara, however, was selected relatively quickly for a 2023 excursion to the ISS.
While most U.S. astronauts today use SpaceX Dragon vehicles to reach orbit, both NASA and Russia fly each other's astronauts as well. NASA has emphasized how important it is to have at least two types of spacecraft available to reach the ISS, for backup purposes in case a problem arises with one spacecraft type. As such, the two agencies routinely exchange seats on each other's spacecraft; O'Hara's was part of a set of four announced in mid-2022.
NASA does not release the details of its astronaut selection process for flights. That said, it is likely that O'Hara's previous experience in Russia played a role in her seat assignment. After being fully qualified as an astronaut, O'Hara spent a considerable amount of time in Moscow as the NASA astronaut office's director of operations in Russia.
"NASA has a training office here, and I was supporting all the crews and training that come through Star City," O'Hara told Space.com. (Star City is the hub of Russian cosmonaut training near Moscow. NASA has elected to continue to send its American astronauts here, under guidance from senior policymakers. That said, most other American space partnerships with Russia were severed following the latter nation's internationally condemned invasion of Ukraine in 2022.)
When O'Hara joined NASA, she was a research engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. There, she spent eight years working on underwater vehicles, including the human submersible Alvin and a remote vehicle known as Jason. O'Hara said that this time working in the water has influenced her understanding of spacewalks as well.
"Remotely operated vehicles — so, those are vehicles that are tethered to the ships. Similarly as astronauts, when we're doing spacewalks, we're tethered to the space station. So tether management was important both in my work at Woods Hole, and then also as an astronaut," she said.
Whether O'Hara will perform a spacewalk during her upcoming mission has not yet been disclosed, but generally speaking, ISS crewmembers are trained on multiple tasks so they are ready for many things during their long-duration stays. O'Hara will also be responsible for dozens of experiments, space station maintenance and other duties in keeping a remote research lab going, alongside the rest of the ISS crew.
O'Hara's handle on X (formerly Twitter) is "Lunar Loral", a spontaneous choice from 15 years ago that coincidentally has special relevance given NASA's current focus on moon exploration via the Artemis program.
"I picked the Twitter handle because I love the moon; I always loved looking at the moon, and [it] had an alliteration with my name," O'Hara said in a July 25 phone interview with Space.com. "So I thought it was a cool Twitter handle."
Now NASA has named its first crew to go around the moon in half a century, on a mission called Artemis 2 in 2024. Landing excursions are expected to follow relatively quickly, with Artemis 3 touching down on the surface as soon as 2025 or 2026. (The timeline of Artemis 3 will depend on the success of the previous mission, as well as the readiness of hardware such as spacesuits and SpaceX's Starship lander.)
"The possibility of me going back to the moon is within the realm … in my career," O'Hara said on July 25. "It's pretty neat and, I think, pretty special. I'm definitely hoping to be a part of Artemis in some form or fashion, whether it's actually being a crew on the mission, or supporting some of the technology development, or supporting missions from Houston."