After careful quarantine, the next ISS crew arrives in orbit

Working from home is easy for some and difficult for others, but one place it’s downright impossible is the International Space Station. So pandemic or no pandemic, the latest crew had to get themselves up there. They’ve just had a successful launch and arrival, but only after a protracted quarantine period.

To be clear, ISS crews are always quarantined prior to launch to make sure they don’t bring the flu up from a chance encounter, but given the coronavirus situation, this was a special occasion.

Update: Although some extra measures were taken, the quarantine was no longer than normal, NASA says. The crew went through a standard two-week quarantine in their quarters, while staff adhered to extra-rigorous infection control at the Roscosmos launch facility in Baikonur. They were not tested for  coronavirus. I’ve attached NASA’s full statement regarding the mission’s quarantine procedures at the bottom of the article.

Expedition 63 will relieve the current crew after about a week of overlap, during which no doubt the ISS begins to feel fairly crowded.

This crew is special in that among its duties will be to welcome the astronauts aboard the first Commercial Crew mission to the ISS, who will arrive on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. That mission, too, is currently on schedule for May despite the pandemic.

Every crew mission for years has been done using Russia’s venerable Soyuz spacecraft. These have been updated continually for decades, but still feature more than a little of what might best be described as “repeatedly flight proven” technology.

The effort to engineer a state of the art spacecraft for crewed missions has lasted several years, coming down to SpaceX and rival Boeing in the home stretch. But while both have suffered repeated delays, Boeing has had numerous other failures that have pushed its launch out toward the end of the year and perhaps beyond. SpaceX, on the other hand, is ready to go.

The first Commercial Crew mission, whether it’s next month or a little later, will be the culmination of years of competition, and the first time a crew has gone to orbit in an American-made spacecraft since the Shuttle was retired. (Virgin Galactic has piloted its spacecraft to the edge of space, but its human-rated craft is not an orbital vehicle.)

If all goes well, NASA’s Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos’s Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner will welcome the historic mission to the ISS soon.

Here’s NASA’s statement on astronaut health and quarantine:

NASA has a robust plan in place to ensure astronauts are not ill or incubating illnesses when they launch to the International Space Station. The space program takes an extremely conservative approach toward infection control so once our crew members arrive at the space station, the risk is as low as possible. All of our crew must stay in quarantine for two weeks before they launch. This ensures that they aren’t sick or incubating an illness when they get to the space station and is called “health stabilization.” NASA and Roscosmos used the standard quarantine period of two weeks for the Soyuz crew.

To prevent any illness before an astronaut goes into quarantine, NASA is closely adhering to the CDC’s recommendations on infection control for the coronavirus. This includes cleaning of surfaces, social distancing, emphasizing hand hygiene, and limiting contact with crew members. During quarantine, the astronauts live in their crew quarters – NASA has crew quarters for this purpose at Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers, and Roscosmos has them in Baikonur. They don’t have direct contact with anyone who has not been pre-cleared by NASA flight surgeons. The time is spent preparing for flight, studying and resting, as well as working out and making video calls to friends and family members.

The 2010 Flight Crew Heath Stabilization Program reflects a preflight quarantine period from the legacy space shuttle program. The Russian program has always implemented a two-week quarantine, and this has applied to all space station partner crew members that have flown on the Soyuz, including American astronauts. In 2011 the space station medical community converged on a common preflight infectious disease control plan, which included a two-week quarantine period along with other measures. This applies to all personnel flying to the space station, which includes the new US commercial vehicles.

Chris Cassidy and his Soyuz crewmates were not tested for coronavirus. They have been under strict quarantine procedures ahead of their launch and no members of their support team in Baikonur have shown any symptoms or fevers.