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Astronauts Gear Up for a Trip Toward the Stars

HOUSTON (CN) — After four years of intense training for a trip to the International Space Station, and bailing out from a rocket in flight two months ago, NASA astronaut Nick Hague half-joked Wednesday that “getting to orbit” is the most important thing he’s hoping to accomplish on the journey.

This model of the International Space Station was displayed on Dec. 12, 2018, at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. (CAMERON LANGFORD/Courthouse News)

Hague had planned to spend the holidays this year marveling at the views of Earth on the spacecraft orbiting 250 miles above the planet’s surface, circling it every 90 minutes at 17,500 mph.

But two minutes after launching in a Soyuz rocket on Oct. 11, a rocket booster broke apart, forcing Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin to bail out in their capsule.

After what NASA called a “ballistic descent” in which extreme G-forces contorted the men’s faces and put their stomachs in their throats, the capsule’s parachutes deployed and landed them safely on a desolate plain in central Kazakhstan.

“We both walked away pretty unscathed,” Hague said at a news conference Wednesday at Johnson SpaceCenter, where he told a group of high school students and reporters about his next mission.

Astronauts Christina Koch and Nick Hague at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Dec. 12, 2018. (CAMERON LANGFORD/Courthouse News)

With NASA astronaut Christina Koch, Hague and Ovchinin are scheduled to launch on Feb. 28, 2019 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for the 59th Expedition to the space station since the first crew took up residence there in 2000.

Their time on the space station will coincide with a new era for NASA and a celebration of its past glories.

NASA has contracted with SpaceX and Boeing to send its astronauts to the space station in 2019 in rockets manufactured by those corporations, and on July 20, 2019, it will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin making history as the first humans to step onto the moon.

Since retiring its space shuttles in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia’s space program to get its astronauts into outer space.

Hague said he believes that SpaceX and Boeing stepping up to fill the void is vitally important to the space station’s mission.

“Having multiple ways to deliver crews to the space station can ensure that we can continue that mission that we are doing up there uninterrupted. The research and discovery that’s taking place on orbit is why we’re doing all this, and being able to do that without pause is important,” he said.

He said that about 250 scientific experiments will be conducted on the space station during their residence there. Studies of Parkinson’s disease and cancer are already underway.

Alexandria Perryman, a NASA audio engineer who provides technical support at the Johnson Space Center for astronaut broadcasts from the space station, affixed tiny microphones to Hague’s and Koch’s shirt collars before the news conference.

Perryman said she’s most intrigued by a space station project in which human cells are being grown on chips to mimic human organs and tissue, with the goal of understanding why prolonged exposure to microgravity speeds up the aging process. 

Hague, a 43-year-old Kansas native, said he’s looking forward to being a guinea pig. He’s volunteered for tests of low gravity’s effects on his lungs and his blood.

Koch, who has degrees in physics and electrical engineering, said the space station experiment she’s most excited about is “the cold atom laboratory,” in which microgravity will allow scientists “to create the coldest spot in the universe.”

Koch, 39, can handle cold places. She spent several winters working at remote research bases in the South Pole and Greenland and said she expects that experience to serve her well on the space station.

“In a lot of ways it’s similar to the challenges … the remote nature and basically having to be the eyes and ears of scientists who aren’t able to be there in the present,” said Koch, who has arms chiseled from rock climbing, her favorite hobby.

She said she’s looking forward to sharing her space station experiences on social media.

“One of the great aspects of being an astronaut is that you’re kind of carrying the dreams of everyone when you go, and part of that responsibility is to give back by sharing it,” she said.

If Hague’s second attempt to reach the space station is successful, he said, it will be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

“Ever since I was little I was curious about space and the idea of exploration and going out there and finding something new,” he said.

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