On Thursday, a new International Space Station crew lifts off from Kazakhstan. And behind each astronaut is another crew: the trainers and technicians who give the astronauts the tools they need to succeed in space.
At 3:20 p.m. ET, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy, and Thomas Pesquet from the European Space Agency will launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, on a Soyuz rocket that will take them on a two-day flight to catch up with the International Space Station.
It’s a groundbreaking team. Mr. Pesquet will become the first French astronaut to fly to the International Space Station. Though Dr. Whitson and Mr. Novitsky are veterans of the International Space Station, Whitson was the first woman to command the ISS, and will become the first woman to command it for a second time once the current ISS team leaves in February. She will also become the oldest woman to fly in space.
But without their support teams, Whitson is quick to point out, none of these milestones would have been possible. That’s why, in the run-up to her third trip to the International Space Station, she has taken to Tumblr, highlighting the stories of her “crew,” from food scientists to language teachers.
“We are working to highlight the stories of these people,” she said in an interview with NASA commentator Dan Huot last year. “What we hope is that by telling those stories, we’ll inspire young people to realize there are different types of jobs in spaceflight and exploration.”
Astronauts have long enjoyed a certain kind of “hero” status. The early astronauts inherited the celebrity of pilots, who were seen as daring adventurers in regions far removed from Americans’ home lives. In the post-war world, astronauts also became key players in the cold war space race, creating a fascination with the individuals. Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space, remains a Russian icon. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, is a household name.
The engineers, technical specialists, and even language instructors behind these astronauts and their impressive feats, however, have largely remained unknown. With her “NASA Village” project, Whitson hopes to shift that narrative, and help children to picture themselves in these roles, too.
Julia Raykin, from Kansas, works as a “remote guider,” helping astronauts understand the data they are looking at and improve its clarity. Carolina Davis, an astronaut trainer who immigrated to the US from Brazil as a teenager, helps Whitson practice for unexpected events, like communications failures, during missions. Food scientist Takiyah Sirmons is in charge of preparing meals for the astronauts.
You don’t have to be a scientist to work with astronauts, either: Elena Hansen is a Russian-language instructor, helping American crew members communicate with Russian astronauts. "The official language of the space station is English, but the official language of the Soyuz vehicle is Russian, so all our crew members have to speak both languages.," Dr. Hansen explained. "I see my job not just as teaching language, but building bridges between crew members."
Whitson agrees, "We need to understand each other’s language ... to reach out to each other, with our words and with our minds, to better learn each other’s cultures, and ways of thinking."
Similar teams support Novitskiy and Pesquet. Novitsky has undergone survival training and preparation for water landings, while Pesquet has worked underground and underwater on ESA and NASA programs.
Even an Orthodox priest supports the missions, blessing each spacecraft that leaves from the base in Kazakhstan.
You can watch Thursday's launch, as well as the astronauts’ pre-launch activities, from 2:45 p.m. ET on NASA TV.