The total number of people in Earth orbit is now at a record high, though only for a short time.
With the launch of China's three-person Shenzhou 16 mission on Monday (May 29) at 9:31 p.m. EDT (0131 GMT or 9:31 a.m. Beijing Time on May 30), the population in orbit grew to 17.
The previous record, set during the privately funded Inspiration4 mission in September 2021, was 14 people.
The current count is comprised by four crews:
- Shenzhou 16 (three people) — Chinese taikonauts Jing Haipeng, Zhu Yangzhu and Gui Haichao, now aboard China's Tiangong space station.
- Shenzhou 15 (three people) — Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, who have been aboard Tiangong since November 2022 and who are expected to return to Earth in early June.
- Expedition 69 (seven people) — Cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev, Dmitry Petelin and Andrey Fedyaev of Russia's federal space corporate Roscosmos; astronauts Frank Rubio, Stephen Bowen and Warren "Woody" Hoburg of NASA; and Emirati astronaut Sultan AlNeyadi of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on the International Space Station (ISS).
- Axiom-2 (four people) — Axiom Space astronaut Peggy Whitson, private astronaut John Shoffner and Saudi Arabian astronauts Ali AlQarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, who departed the ISS aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon "Freedom" to return to Earth on Tuesday (May 30).
The Ax-2 crew is scheduled to splash down off the coast of Florida at about 11:04 p.m. EDT on Tuesday (0304 GMT on Wednesday, May 31), leaving 13 people in Earth orbit.
By coincidence, the current record includes the 600th person to enter Earth orbit. Ax-2 mission specialist Barnawi became the sexcentenarian orbital space traveler, as well as the first Saudi woman in space, when she and her crew launched on May 21.
The record for most people in space (rather than just Earth orbit) at once was reset recently, too, and lasted an even shorter amount of time. For about 5 minutes, there were 20 people off the planet.
That record was set by the six members of Virgin Galactic Unity 25 SpaceShipTwo crew, whose suborbital spaceflight coincided with three Chinese taikonauts living aboard Tiangong and 11 astronauts, cosmonauts and spaceflight participants on board the International Space Station.
- SpaceShipTwo Unity 25 (six people): Michael Masucci, CJ Sturckow, Beth Moses, Luke Mays, Jamila Gilbert and Christopher Huie.
- Shenzhou 15 (three people) — Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu.
- Expedition 69 (seven people) - U.S. astronauts Frank Rubio, Stephen Bowen and Warren "Woody" Hoburg; Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev, Dmitry Petelin and Andrey Fedyaev; and Sultan AlNeyadi of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
- Axiom Space Ax-2 (four people) - Peggy Whitson, John Stoffner, Ali AlQarni and Rayyanah Barnawi.
The previous record for the most people in space at once was set during Blue Origin's New Shepard NS-19 suborbital flight on Dec. 11, 2021, when there were briefly 19 people off Earth.
Since 2000, there has been a continuous presence of humans in space, dating back to the first crew to take up residency on the International Space Station.
China completed assembly of its three-module Tiangong space station late last year. The Shenzhou 16 crew is the station's fifth contingent since 2021.
This article was updated to reflect the most recent record for the most people in space (versus in Earth orbit) at once as set on May 25, 2023.