NASA formally announced the next crew bound for the international space station on Thursday, a two-astronaut team set to launch in mid-March aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Veteran cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, with Russia’s Federal Space Agency, will command the space station’s Expedition 13 mission with U.S. astronaut Jeffrey Williams serving as both flight engineer and NASA science officer.
Also launching toward the station with the Expedition 13 crew will be Brazilian Air Force Lt. Col. Marcos Pontes, Brazil’s first astronaut slated to fly in space. Pontes is expected to spend about one week performing experiments aboard the station before returning to Earth with its current crew.
Vinogradov is a veteran of one previous long-duration spaceflight aboard Russia’s Mir space station in 1997, while Williams, a U.S. Army colonel, served as a mission specialist aboard NASA’s Atlantis orbiter during the 10-day STS-101 flight in May 2000.
Both men will be onboard the station in May when the current launch window opens for NASA’s STS-121 shuttle flight aboard Discovery, NASA officials have said.
The STS-121 test flight, NASA’s second post-Columbia accident shuttle mission, is expected to deliver European astronaut Thomas Reiter to the station, though the flight is pending the resolution of shuttle fuel-tank foam issues. The European Space Agency has tapped Reiter as its first long-duration crew member on the station.
Vinogradov and Williams will replace the space station’s current crew, Expedition 12 commander Bill McArthur and flight engineer Valery Tokarev, who have lived aboard the space station since October 2005. McArthur and Tokarev cleared the midpoint of their six-month expedition this week.
At about 3 a.m. ET Thursday, Tokarev responded to a false fire alarm inside the station’s Russian-built Zvezda service module, NASA spokesman Rob Navias told Space.com.
“All the systems were checked [and] there was no data to suggest anything out of the ordinary,” Navias said, adding that similar false alarms have occurred in the past in both the U.S. and Russian segments of the station.
McArthur, Tokarev and Pontes are expected to return to Earth in early April aboard their Soyuz TMA-7 spacecraft.
Russian Soyuz spacecraft have proven vital for transporting astronaut crews to and from the space station. The dependable vehicles were the only spacecraft to ferry astronauts into Earth orbit during the two and a half years NASA spent recovering from the 2003 Columbia accident. NASA's Discovery shuttle visited the station in July-August 2005 during the STS-114 mission, which marked the U.S. space agency's first post-Columbia spaceflight.
Earlier today, Space.com reported that NASA struck a $44 million deal with Russia's Federal Space Agency to purchase additional Soyuz rides to the station for future U.S. astronauts. A previous bilateral agreement, in which Russia accommodated U.S. astronauts aboard Soyuz vehicles as part of its contribution to station operations, expired with the Expedition 12 crew's launch last fall.
The $44 million covers Williams' trip to and from the station, as well as McArthur's ride back to Earth. The cost amounts to about $21.8 million per passenger — a price that the Russians have agreed to honor through 2011, NASA said.