NASA and its international partners have agreed to send two crew members to the International Space Station (ISS) for a one-year stay to collect data for long-term spaceflight missions. The new mission will also open up seats on the Russian Soyuz for sale to tourists, with one popular singer already signed up.
One American astronaut and one Russian cosmonaut will launch and land in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft with an expected mission start in 2015. The year-long mission will enable scientists to gather more information and insight on how the human body reacts and adapts to a zero gravity environment. Data from the expedition will help reduce the risks associated with future exploration to destinations such as asteroids and Mars.
Over the 12 years of space station operations, scientists have gained data on the effects of microgravity -- don't call it Zero-G around them -- on bone density, muscle mass, strength, vision and other aspects of human physiology. The year-long stay will allow for a better look at the effects and trends as the body adopts.
The 2015 expedition will also serve as a test bed for future technologies. A crew announcement is expected to occur sometime in the next few weeks, but finding volunteers out of NASA's astronaut corps won't be hard. With the retirement of the space shuttle last year, flight opportunities are now limited until commercial crew launch services start running in the second half of the decade -- 2015 to 2017, depending on who's talking and the amount of money being provided for spacecraft development.
Putting two people on ISS for a year when the normal crew rotation is between four to six months also just happens to free up seats in the Russian Soyuz for other passengers. Singer Sarah Brightman, best known for starring in "Phantom of the Opera," has reportedly paid the Russian space agency Roscosmos more than the NASA contract rate of around $51 million to get a trip to the ISS sometime in 2014 or 2015. Post-shuttle, there haven't been any extra tourist seats available, so Brightman may have forced the issue of a year-long mission in essence by outbidding NASA for a seat.
During the late 1980s through the 1990s, six cosmonauts logged stays of over 300 days on board the Mir space station. Valeri Polyakov holds the record for longest mission time, having spent over 437 days in orbit from January 8, 1994 through March 22, 1995. Instrumentation and procedures on ISS should allow scientists to gather more medical data and details than the earlier Mir missions.
Edited by Brooke Neuman