Space station crew returning to unfamiliar world

With their replacements safely aboard the International Space Station, three crew members packed up for an overnight trip back to Earth early Friday, returning to an unfamiliar world in the grip of a pandemic that will force them to extend the social isolation they were hoping to end.

“It’s a little bit surreal to think that we’re going back, especially given the situation that’s been unfolding on the ground,” flight engineer Jessica Meir told NPR during an interview Wednesday. “It looks like we are going back to a completely different planet. So it will be certainly an interesting experience for us.”

Meir, Soyuz MS-15/61S commander Oleg Skripochka and physician-astronaut Drew Morgan planned to undock from the aft port of the station’s Russian Zvezda module at 9:53 pm EDT Thursday night. Bidding them farewell will be NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, who arrived at the station last Thursday.

Expedition 62 commander Oleg Skripochka (front center) officially turned the International Space Station over to Expedition 63 commander Chris Cassidy (front left) during a brief ceremony Wednesday. Looking on in a group hug are Cassidy’s crewmates (in light blue) Anatoly Ivanishin (middle left) and Ivan Vagner. Skripochka, Jessica Meir and Drew Morgan (all in dark blue) return to Earth early Friday. NASA

Skripochka and Meir launched together last September 25 along with a United Arab Emirates guest cosmonaut who returned to Earth eight days later. Morgan, who flew to the lab with a different crew last July 20, is taking the guest cosmonaut’s seat for the trip home.

After undocking and moving a safe distance away, Skripochka will monitor an automated four-minute 41-second rocket firing, slowing the ship by about 286 mph to drop the far side of its orbit deep into the atmosphere. That will set up a landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan near the town of Dzhezkazgan at 1:16 am EDT Friday (11:16 am local time).

With touchdown, Morgan will have logged 272 days in space during his first flight. participating in seven spacewalks over the course of an extended mission. Skripochka and Meir, who participated in three all-female spacewalks, will have logged 205 days aboard the orbital outpost.

Due to coronavirus safety protocols and travel restrictions, the Russian recovery force will be smaller than usual with just eight helicopters deployed instead of the usual 12. In addition, the recovery teams will be staged out of the Baikonur Cosmodrome some 250 miles from the landing site instead of Karaganda, a much closer town that is normally used.

After brief medical checks and satellite calls home to family and friends, Skripochka, Meir and Morgan will be flown by helicopter to Baikonur where Skripochka will board a Russian jet for the the trip home to Star City near Moscow.

NASA, operating under Kazakh travel restrictions, was unable to send a jet directly to Baikonur. Instead, Meir and Morgan will face a three-hour ground trip north to Kyzlorda where they will board an agency plane for the flight back to Houston.

“Our support people on the ground have been working very hard to figure out even how to come pick us up,” Meir said. “Normally what happens is a NASA aircraft comes over to pick us up and gets us back to Houston within 24 hours. But even getting that NASA aircraft over there with all the international stops involved has been quite an effort.

“We’re taking a different path, it’s going to be kind of like a ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ scenario where I think we’re going to even end up riding in an ambulance for several hours across the Kazakh steppe in order to get to our airplane. … But this is the first time landing for (us), so we don’t really have anything to compare it to. It’ll just be the way that it is for us.”

Once back in Houston, Meir and Morgan will spend their first week in an extended quarantine, using crew quarters at the Johnson Space Center, as a safety precaution. That’s because astronauts returning to Earth after long-duration space flights can exhibit slightly depressed immune systems. Given the coronavirus, that’s an added risk for the returning station fliers.

041620-iss.jpg The International Space Station (file photo). Roscosmos

“So we’ll have a more strict quarantine this time where we’ll be actually staying and living at NASA for at least a week after we land with very limited access to make sure that that we remain healthy,” Meir said.

She described the post-landing protocols as ironic given she and Morgan spent the past six months and more in extreme isolation 250 miles above Earth. Since October 3, only six people have been aboard the station.

“That is the irony,” Meir said of the extended quarantine. “I think it’s actually going to feel more confined and more isolating to do that on Earth than it is up here because that’s something that we expect and train for. We have so many extraordinary things happening around us at all times up here, we don’t really feel like that isolation and confinement is an issue.

“But on the ground, when you’re not used to expecting that and when your daily life consists of going out and doing all these things, I think it’s going to feel a lot more isolating down there than up here.”

Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner were launched April 9 from Baikonur amid strict coronavirus protocols to minimize the chances of the COVID-19 virus getting on board the space station.

“This mission, it does feel different, I will tell you, leaving Earth amidst the global crisis and the shutdown, worldwide quarantine,” Cassidy said last week during a news conference with Meir and Morgan. We knew as a crew we were going to be in quarantine … but we didn’t know the whole rest of the world was going to join us.”

With the departure of Meir and Morgan, Cassidy will be the only U.S. crew member aboard the station until SpaceX launches its Crew Dragon spacecraft on its first piloted mission around May 27.

041620-meir-morgan.jpg Drew Morgan and Jessica Meir have been living aboard the International Space Station since last July and September respectively. They return to Earth in the midst of a global pandemic that will require them to extend their social isolation. NASA

NASA managers had expected to already be launching astronauts aboard SpaceX and Boeing commercial crew ships by now, ending the agency’s sole reliance on the Soyuz. Equally important, the new crew ships are needed to ensure the presence of three to four U.S.-sponsored astronauts aboard the station at all times to carry out a full slate of scientific research.

Anticipating the advent of U.S. commercial crew ships, Russia scaled back production of its three-seat Soyuz spacecraft and only two will be launched this year: the Soyuz MS-16/62S vehicle that carried Cassidy and his crewmates into orbit April 9 and the second on October 14.

NASA currently only has one Soyuz seat — Cassidy’s — under contract with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. NASA is negotiating for a seat aboard the October flight and possibly a second seat next spring, but no contracts have yet been signed.

At least one U.S. astronaut is required to be aboard the space station at all times to operate and maintain NASA systems.

Tom Stafford, a Gemini and Apollo-era astronaut with a long history of working with the Russians, participated in a joint NASA-Roscosmos review last December. He summed up the consensus in stark terms during a space station advisory committee teleconference on March 30.

“The joint commission believes there is a significant technical risk due to further delay in the U.S. crew vehicle, USCV, schedule,” he said. “Without the USCV and without ensuring additional US Soyuz seats, then there’ll be no U.S. crew members on the ISS after October (21), that is, until we finally get the USCV in operation and up there.

“The ISS has always required at least one U.S. and Russian crew member for safe operations,” he continued. “Without U.S. crew on board, failure of critical U.S. orbital segment (equipment) could result in the loss of the ISS. It is imperative that NASA and Roscosmos find a way to guarantee at least one appropriately trained U.S. and Russian crew members on board the ISS at all times.”

Despite coronavirus restrictions, NASA and SpaceX have been pressing ahead with preparations to launch astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken to the space station aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft at the end of May. Assuming that test flight goes well, NASA hopes to follow up with an operational Crew Dragon flight in mid to late summer carrying a crew of four.

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