An American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut are preparing to blast off from their home planet Sunday to fly to the space station next week.
Expedition 18 commander Michael Fincke and flight engineer Yury Lonchakov, both veteran spaceflyers, are due to launch Oct. 12 aboard a Russian Soyuz TMA-13 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome spaceport in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan. They will be joined on the journey by American space tourist Richard Garriott.
Fincke and Lonchakov both plan to stay aboard the orbiting outpost for about six months and help outfit the lab to host six-person crews, effectively doubling the size of the three-member teams it currently houses.
They will join NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff, currently working aboard the space station as part of Expedition 17, who will serve as an Expedition 18 flight engineer. Later, Chamitoff is set to switch spots with American astronaut Sandy Magnus, due to arrive at the station aboard the space shuttle Endeavour's STS-126 mission in November. Next year, Magnus is slated to swap places with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, who will fly to the station on the space shuttle Discovery's STS-119 mission in February 2009.
An astronaut with a calling
A colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Fincke, 41, grew up in Emsworth, Pa., and holds masters degrees in aeronautics and astronautics, as well as in planetary geology. He was selected as a NASA astronaut candidate in 1996.
"Some people refer to it as a calling, a vocation," Fincke said in a NASA interview. "And that was it. As soon as I saw astronauts, my senior colleagues walking on the moon, flying aboard Skylab, the early shuttle missions, I just knew that that's what I wanted to do, and I was very fortunate to have that opportunity."
After his first taste of spaceflight, as a flight engineer on the space station's Expedition 9 mission in 2004, Fincke said he knew he wanted to go back. This time, however, he'll have the added role of mission commander.
"This time around, I'm going to be spending a lot of time looking at the overall mission and making sure that my crew is given everything they need to so that they can do their job effectively, as well as make sure the ground team is happy," he told SPACE.com. "It's going to be tricky, but fortunately we have such a good relationship in our crew and with the ground teams already that I think it's going to go smoothly. We have such good working relationships that it's going to be a lot of fun along the way."
Fincke is married to wife Renita, and has three children: 7-year-old son Chandra, 4-year-old daughter Tarali and new baby daughter Surya, about 7 months old. Their names translate to "moon," "star," and "sun," respectively.
"They're definitely the reasons why I even bother to come back from flying into space," Fincke said.
While being away from his family will be difficult, he said there is one upside.
"I have three young children at home, and it's a very noisy home and I don't get much sleep," he said jokingly. "I'm not complaining whatsoever though, it's my joy. However, I am looking forward to the quiet time aboard the space station, and getting a chance to relax and read a little bit."
The son of Russian geologists, Lonchakov, 43, grew up in Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan, where his parents were conducting research. He is married to wife Tatyana, and they have one son.
Once as a young student, Lonchakov visited Star City, where Russian cosmonauts train, and the experience inspired him to pursue his own goal of flying in space.
"I made myself a promise that I will one day become a professional astronaut, so this was my dream from the early years and now I am very happy that this dream is coming true for the third time," Lonchakov said in a NASA interview.
A pilot in the Russian Air Force, Lonchakov joined Russia's test cosmonaut ranks in 1997 and flew aboard the shuttle Endeavour's STS-100 mission to the space station in 2001. He later spent about 10 days aboard the station in 2002 via a Soyuz flight.
He said he is looking forward to his first long-duration mission, especially since he feels so comfortable with the crew.
"It's [full of] very professional people and very nice," he told SPACE.com. "Yes, our training is certainly easy because I've known Michael Fincke a long time, and I know Koichi and Sandy no problem. I know them like family."
The multinational Expedition 18 crew exemplifies the spirit of international collaboration that Lonchokov said he values in the International Space Station program.
"I think the very name, International Space Station, already is self-explaining in that from the very first elements of this station we saw international crews operating the outpost, Americans, Russians, Europeans, Japanese," he said. "So what we're seeing is the international project shaping up in space in the interests of the entire mankind, of the human progress, and this is, and this is great not only for us as a spaceflight professionals, both in space and on the ground, but also for the future of humanity."