Expedition 50 Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson is set to go on her eighth spacewalk Thursday morning and surpass astronaut Suni Williams record for the most spacewalks by a female astronaut.
Astronaut Peggy Whitson, 56, holds a doctorate in biochemistry. She is America’s most experienced female astronaut, veteran of two long-duration stays aboard the station in 2002 and 2007-08 totaling nearly 377 days aloft. She served as commander of the station during her second visit and was the first non-military pilot, and first female, to serve as chief of NASA’s astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center.
Nasa is gearing up for an intense few weeks of work aboard the International Space Station, staging three spacewalks, moving a docking port from one module to another to support commercial crew ferry ships and capturing an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship carrying nearly 4 tons of equipment and supplies.
The third spacewalk, by Whitson and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, currently is planned for April 6. But EVA-42 will depend on when the Cygnus cargo ship arrives. The supply craft is carrying a cable needed to help engineers test a data circuit in a high-energy physics experiment and a replacement avionics box needed to support experiments mounted on an external stowage platform.
Assuming the Cygnus gets there in time and the spacewalk stays on schedule, Whitson and Pesquet will replace the avionics box, install a wireless antenna and a new HD television camera and help engineers troubleshoot a cooling issue with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer.
Whitson will install a jumper cable, launched aboard the Cygnus, to test a long-dormant data circuit in the instrument that could be used in the future if new coolant-system pumps need to be installed. She also will take additional photographs to help engineers assess the condition of the AMS’s thermal insulation.
If the Cygnus does not arrive by around April 4, sources say, the third spacewalk likely will be delayed to late April, but no decisions are expected until the problem with the Atlas 5 is resolved.
This will be the 199th spacewalk in support of space station assembly and maintenance.The spacewalk is Kimbrough’s sixth of his career and Whitson’s eighth of her career,more than any other female astronaut.
Assuming all three spacewalks last the predicted six-and-a-half hours each, Whitson will move up to third on the list of the world’s most experienced spacewalkers, with nine excursions totaling more than 65 hours.
With all three spacewalks complete and Cygnus safely attached, Kimbrough, Soyuz MS-02 commander Sergey Ryzhikov and flight engineer Andrey Borisenko plan to undock and return to Earth April 10, landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan around 7:20 a.m. (5:20 p.m. local time).
Whitson will take over as commander of Expedition 51 when Kimbrough departs. She and her two Soyuz MS-03 crewmates,Pesquet and Soyuz commander Oleg Novitskiy,will have the station to themselves until April 20 when Soyuz MS-04 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and NASA flight engineer Jack Fischer arrive after launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
Soyuz ferry ships normally carry three crew members, but the Russians are dropping back to two for this flight to save money and reduce the need for supplies.
From left, American astronaut Peggy Whitson, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy, and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet
As it now stands, Whitson, Pesquet and Novitskiy plan to return to Earth June 2. But mission managers are debating the possibility of keeping Whitson in orbit until September to maximize research time.
A decision on Whitson’s mission is expected soon.