Mark Vande Hei is currently scheduled to spend six months aboard the International Space Station, but the potential arrival of a Russian film crew means he’d have to give up his return seat home, requiring the veteran NASA astronaut to spend an entire year in space.
Vande Hei only recently learned that he’s officially joining the Soyuz MS-18 mission, and now he’s being told that his stay aboard the ISS could last until the spring of 2022, instead of ending this October.
He and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov are scheduled to launch on April 9 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Cosmonaut Sergey Korsakov was supposed to have a seat on MS-18, but an unusual arrangement involving NASA, Roscosmos, and the private U.S. company Axiom Space made the flight possible for Vande Hei. In exchange, Axiom Space will provide a seat for a cosmonaut in 2023. This is being done to ensure an uninterrupted American presence on the ISS—a string of continuity that dates back for over 20 years.
Vande Hei, who has been preparing for months, will join the Expedition 64/65 crew aboard the ISS. Should the newly announced plan to film a movie aboard the station go through, he’ll be in space twice as long as originally scheduled.
Russian director Klim Shipenko and an actress to be named later might join the Soyuz MS-19 mission, which is scheduled for launch in October, as AP reports. The working title of the film is Vyzov, which means “challenge” in English, and it’s meant to “highlight Russian space activities and glorify the cosmonaut profession,” according to a news release. The film is being produced by Russia’s’ Channel One and a television studio, per AP.
Once filming activities are done, Shipenko and his partner, along with Novitskiy, would return home on MS-18, likely within a week. The two seats were meant for Vande Hei and Dubrov, which means the pair might have to stay on the ISS until the next return trip home, likely in the spring of 2022.
Vande Hei, who spent 168 days in space from September 2017 to February 2018, seemed unfazed about the whole thing.
“Honestly, for me it’s just an opportunity for a new life experience,” he told reporters yesterday at the press conference. “I’ve never been in space longer than six months,” he said. “I’m really enthusiastic about it.”
Sending “tourists” to space is nothing new for Roscosmos. The Russian space agency began doing so in 2001, at a rumored fee of $20 million per seat, according to Space Policy Online. A total of seven tourists have made the trek to space, but these missions stopped about 10 years ago, when NASA, unable to launch its own astronauts to space, started scooping up the extra Soyuz seats. As Space Policy Online points out, the successful development of SpaceX’s CrewDragon means NASA is no longer reliant on Russia, freeing Roscosmos to again sign up space tourists, or in this case, filmmakers.
Speculation about actor Tom Cruise going to the ISS to shoot a movie remains unconfirmed, but such a venture, should it happen, would likely involve Axiom Space.
As already noted, NASA is no longer reliant on Roscosmos when it comes to launching astronauts to space. Should the space agency really, really want to retrieve Vande Hei, it could tap SpaceX for the task. But the extended stay would give scientists further opportunity to investigate the long-term effects of microgravity on the human body, something we need to know more about before humans can visit Mars.
Here’s something else to consider: Kate Rubins is the backup NASA astronaut for MS-18. Should Vande Hei not be able to join the mission next month, and should the Russian plan to film a movie proceed, it means Rubins would stay in space for upwards of a year. This would give her the opportunity to smash the female record for extended space flight, which is currently held by Christina Koch, who recently spent 328 days in space.
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, with his Russian crewmember Mikhail Kornienko, spent 340 days aboard the ISS as part of a mission that ended five years ago. The overall record belongs to cosmonaut Valeriy Polyakov, who spent 437 days aboard the Mir space station, followed by Sergei Avdeyev, who spent 380 consecutive days in orbit.