Just roughly a month before the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft launch to the International Space Station (ISS) takes off, NASA has named astronaut Mark Vande Hei to the mission for a one-year journey to the orbiting outpost.
He'll be joined by Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov when the spacecraft launches to the ISS from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome at 3:42 a.m. EDT on April 9, 2021.
The Rassvet module is scheduled to dock with the ship two orbits later.
Vande Hei, 54, will be making his second journey into space. His first expeditions came in 2017 and 2018. SpaceFlightInsider said he was a member of Expeditions 53 and 54 of the International Space Station. He spent 168 days in space in total. During that time, he completed four spacewalks outside the International Space Station. It totaled 26 hours and 42 minutes.
What Will Hei Do There?
According to NASA, Vande Hei would work on hundreds of projects during his second stay onboard the ISS, including tests on cotton root systems, Alzheimer's disease, and numerous technology presentations for the agency's Artemis Moon initiative.
This flight had the potential to be the first all-Russian Soyuz flight in more than two decades when it took off. Sergei Korsakov, a Russian cosmonaut, will be replaced by Vande Hei. Korsakov's replacement flight is yet to be decided.
NASA said the assignment of a US astronaut to a Russian Soyuz spacecraft means that the US stays on the ISS even though commercial crew spacecrafts are delayed.
This agreement was made possible thanks to a deal with Houston-based commercial firm Axiom Space. According to NASA, Axiom has purchased a seat on the Soyuz spacecraft and will trade it for a seat on a potential U.S. commercial spacecraft, such as SpaceX's Crew Dragon or Boeing's Starliner, "as part of a space station crew rotation mission." The date of the launch is scheduled for 2023.
The deal involves no sharing of money, according to NASA, unless the facilities are determined to be of equal value by all parties (Axiom Space and NASA).
It's unclear how or when Axiom Space obtained the Soyuz bench.
Why Is Hei Staying in the ISS For a Year?
According to the Associated Press, Vande Hei will have to offer up his return Soyuz seat to a Russian space tourist who wants to film up there in the fall. If that happens, he and one of his two Russian crewmates will have to wait for the next Soyuz flight home. That is most likely to be in spring 2022.
He said the latest assignment is his chance to try something different in life. "I've never been in space longer than about six months, so if someone tells me I've got to stay in space for a year, I'll find out what that feels like. I'm really enthusiastic about it."
Russia's Channel One and a TV film studio are working on the project. The film "Vyzov," or "Challenge" in English, is intended to spotlight Russian space operations and glorify the cosmonaut career.
The good news is that NASA successfully brought Vande Hei's clothes into space. Otherwise, the former Army colonel may have been forced to wear outfits that were designed for someone else.
Vande Hei anticipates receiving his COVID-19 injection for the second time this week. And when he and his Russian crewmates are exercising in spacesuits, he insists on wearing masks.
"It's not very comfortable, but it's the right thing to do," he said.
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