NASA sets up more ‘Near Year in Space’ stays, including a record-setter for women

NASA astronaut Christina Koch conducts botany research aboard the International Space Station. (NASA Photo)

Just days after the publication of scientific results from NASA’s first “Year in Space” mission, the space agency says two more extended stays on the International Space Station are in the works.

One of the missions will set a world record for the longest spaceflight by a woman, and it’s already in progress. NASA astronaut Christina Koch, who went into orbit in March, is having her tour of duty extended to 328 days.

That exceeds the 288 days spent in orbit by NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, the current record-holder among women astronauts for continuous time in space. And it comes close to the 340-day NASA record set by Scott Kelly in 2015-2016. (But for what it’s worth, the duration falls far short of the 437-day, 18-hour record set by Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov on Russia’s Mir space station in 1994-1995.)

Koch said spending nearly a year in space will be “awesome.”

“I had known this was a possibility for a long time, and it’s truly a dream come true to know that I can continue to work on the program that I valued so highly my whole life,” the 40-year-old engineer said in a NASA space-to-ground video interview. “To be able to contribute to that and to give my best every day to that for as long as possible is a true honor and a dream come true.”

NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan, who’s due for launch to the space station in July, will also be spending a stint in space lasting longer than 250 days, although the space agency didn’t announce a precise time frame.

Jennifer Fogarty, chief scientist of the Human Research Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the extended missions will build upon past studies focusing on the health effects of long-term spaceflight — including the data gleaned from Kelly’s flight.

“Astronauts demonstrate amazing resilience and adaptability in response to long-duration spaceflight exposure,” Fogarty said in a news release. “This will enable successful exploration missions with healthy, performance-ready astronauts.”

During Kelly’s tour of duty, his medical and genetic profile was compared with that of his identical twin down on Earth, retired astronaut Mark Kelly. The findings from the experiment, published in the journal Science, didn’t reveal any previously unknown deal-breakers for long space journeys — but they did raise concerns about the potential effects of space radiation, to cite one example.

Such concerns will have to be fully addressed in preparation for long-term trips to the moon, Mars and perhaps beyond.

Today’s announcement also revealed that Jessica Meir, who was a colleague of Koch and Morgan in NASA’s astronaut class of 2013, will be making her first spaceflight in September. That Soyuz launch will also carry the United Arab Emirates’ first astronaut, Hazzaa Ali Almansoori, to the station for an eight-day mission.

Almansoori, a military fighter pilot, will fly under the terms of a spaceflight participant contract with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Such an arrangement is the template that NASA is likely to use for spaceflight participants who could eventually fly on commercial space taxis such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or Boeing’s Starliner.

Here’s the sequence of missions as announced by NASA:

June 24: Current Expedition 59 crew members Anne McClain of NASA, David Saint-Jacques of the Canadian Space Agency and Oleg Kononenko of Roscosmos will return to Earth. Koch and fellow NASA astronaut Nick Hague, and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin will remain aboard the space station and begin Expedition 60. July 20: NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov are scheduled to launch to the space station and join Expedition 60, returning the orbiting laboratory’s crew complement to six. Parmitano and Skvortsov will return in February 2020 with Koch, leaving Morgan behind for his extended stay. Sept. 25: Meir is scheduled to launch to the station with Almansoon and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka. Almansoon will return with Hague and Ovchinin Oct. 3. Meir and Skripochka will return in spring 2020 with Morgan.

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