NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, the only woman living onboard the International Space Station at the moment, is on track to break a big spaceflight record: at the end of April, she will have spent more cumulative hours in space than any other US astronaut. But now it looks like Whitson’s going to rack up even more flight time in lower Earth orbit than originally planned. NASA announced today that Whitson will be extending her stay on the ISS by an additional three months, adding even more hours to her record-breaking time in space.
Whitson launched to the ISS in November 2016 on a Russian Soyuz rocket, along with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy and Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency. Their stay on the ISS, known as Expedition 51, was meant to last until June. That’s still true for Pesquet and Novitskiy, but Whitson will now come back sometime in September. Her trip back to Earth will be with NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin — two crew members who are slated to launch to the ISS later this month.
“I love being up here,” Whitson said in a statement. “Living and working aboard the space station is where I feel like I make the greatest contribution, so I am constantly trying to squeeze every drop out of my time here. Having three more months to squeeze is just what I would wish for.”
The decision has to do with some recent changes that have been made to the station manifest in 2017. Last year, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, said that it would be downsizing the number of cosmonauts continually living on the ISS from three to two. The move is meant to maximize efficiency and save money, until Roscosmos launches a long-delayed module to the ISS known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module. Roscosmos plans to increase the cosmonaut crew back to three after the module’s launch sometime in late 2017 or early 2018, according to Sergei Krikalev, director of the agency’s human spaceflight program.
Russia’s downsizing decision means that only two people — Fischer and Yurchikhin —will be launching on the next Soyuz launch this month, instead of the usual three. So they’ll have an extra seat to spare when they return home in September. Meanwhile, three of the current six crew members on the station are slated to leave next week. Whitson’s extension means that there will be a full six people onboard the ISS when her two fellow Expedition 51 crew mates leave and a new trio of astronauts arrives in July.
Even before the schedule change, Whitson was poised to break the record for most cumulative spaceflight hours by an American. On April 24th, she’ll have spent more than 534 days in space, exceeding the total flight time of previous record holder Jeff Williams. Now by the end of her mission, Whitson will be supremely in the lead. She’s no stranger to holding impressive records, though. Whitson was the first woman to ever command the ISS, and next week, she will be the first woman to command the station for the second time. She’s also spent more time on spacewalks than any other woman, and she’s set to go on yet another spacewalk in the coming months.