ISS delays planned May 1 launch of SpaceX resupply rocket
Image: NASA

The next three-person crew is training for an upcoming stay at the International Space Station (ISS), Spaceflight Now reports. The team will travel to the orbiting lab on a Soyuz rocket in April 2020.

For the majority of their mission, two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut will have their interstellar home all to themselves. The trio will work at the facility until a new commercial crew spacecraft blasts off from American soil. Those future launch dates are still up in the air.

ISS Crew Reduction

If all goes as planned, cosmonauts Nikolai Tikhonov and Andrei Babkin will blast into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 9. Veteran NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy will join them for what will be his third spaceflight. The team’s cosmic tour of duty should last around six months.

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Tikhonov will command the Soyuz MS-16 spaceship with Babkin as the primary flight engineer. The journey marks the first spaceflight for both men. Once the rocket docks, Cassidy will serve as the Expedition 63 space station commander.

Usually, the ISS runs with a six-person team. However, the trio will work as a short staff until another ship arrives.

“What we’re preparing for… is a six-month duration where it’s just the three of us,” Cassidy said in a press conference. “That’s why we’re getting a lot of extra training at specialist levels for Andrei and Nikolai on all the U.S. side equipment.”

NASA replaced Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide with Cassidy for the mission. The space agency swapped crew members after delays with Boeing and SpaceX’s commercial crew vehicles.

“We have a great partnership with JAXA, and we would love to be able to have JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) with us there, but because we haven’t had commercial crew ready yet, we want to make sure that we don’t de-crew (with U.S. astronauts),” NASA Chief Jim Bridenstine said in an October interview with Spaceflight Now. “Remember, this is a $100 billion investment by the American taxpayer. For us to de-crew it, I think, would be inappropriate.”

The incoming crew members will share the station with three ISS residents for about a week. Then, the outbound crew flies back to Earth.

Smaller Crew, Same Focus

When Cassidy arrives at the floating lab, his stay will briefly overlap with fellow Maine native astronaut Jessica Meir.

The veteran space traveler is excited about spending some time in orbit with someone from his home state. “What’s really cool for me being a Mainer is I’ll overlap with Jessica Meir for nine days or so at the end of her mission,” said Cassidy in a Portland Press interview

He also discussed prepping for contingencies with a reduced crew during a recent press conference at Johnson Space Center, as the Houston Chronicle reports.

“The reason we train is to be ready for any contingency that happens,” said Cassidy. “You don’t know what the next weird thing that’s going to happen is, but we practice for all the weird situations that we can think of.”

The three-person team won’t do many (if any) spacewalks. However, in the event of an emergency, they know how to do them with a limited crew. In this scenario, two people are outside for the EVA, and one person is inside the space station.

For now, the trio will focus on conducting research and scientific experiments in the microgravity environment.

“The station is still a mechanical system, so it has its hiccups, but we’ve pretty much flushed those hiccups out really well, and we can focus intently on what the goal is, and that’s to do science and research,” Cassidy said. “And we can do a lot of it with all those available crew hours.”

Waiting for New Commercial Crew Visitors

Overall, NASA needs an astronaut with Cassidy’s experience and expertise to be aboard the space station while the agency waits for more crew members to arrive.

Currently, Tikhonov is training to use an American spacesuit and Babkin is learning to operate the Canadian-made robotic arm. ISS crewmembers use the device to capture incoming cargo ships from Northup Grumman, SpaceX, and JAXA.

Meanwhile, SpaceX and Boeing are pushing to send astronauts to the ISS from American soil as soon as possible. However, both companies have experienced delays with their Crew Dragon and Starliner crew capsules, respectively.

Despite the setbacks, NASA expects at least one of the commercial crew vehicles to transport a new group of astronauts to the ISS in the first half of next year.

SpaceX’s two-person team is only supposed to stay at the station around a week, as the company is logging its first trip as a “test flight.” However, once the astronauts arrive at the ISS, NASA could extend their time there for several months if needed.

Furthermore, if Boeing and SpaceX experience further crewed flight delays, the space agency may have to buy additional seats on Soyuz rockets to keep an American astronaut at the ISS.

Whatever happens, Cassidy and his crewmates are prepared to operate on their own for the duration of their mission.

“With luck, we’ll have commercial crew, whichever one it is, and who knows, but we’ll have some visitors, and we’ll be excited for that,” Cassidy said. “But we’re also ready operationally, mentally—all that—prepared to just be the three of us on the space station.”

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