The birthday candles will burn brightly on Wednesday for Kate Rubins’ next birthday. When the PhD cancer biologist-turned-astronaut hits 42 on 14 October, she will be serenaded by the blazing engines and guttural roar of the Soyuz-2.1a booster as it propels Rubins and her Soyuz MS-17 crewmates Sergei Ryzhikov and Sergei Kud-Sverchkov towards a 177-day tour of duty aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
With two previous long-duration station trips between them, almost three hundred cumulative days spent in orbit and two spacewalks—to say nothing of the fact that Rubins and Ryzhikov spent a few days together in space, back in October 2016—they will form the core of Expedition 64, which in early-to-mid November will expand into the first-ever seven-member ISS increment.
With the names of Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov having become public knowledge earlier this year, and Rubins herself assigned at the beginning of June, the last few months have represented one of the shortest dedicated training regimes of any ISS crew.
And although Ryzhikov has completed backup duties for no fewer than three Soyuz missions in the last year—including Soyuz MS-16, which launched in April—Rubins and Kud-Sverchkov were assigned directly to this crew with no backup assignment immediately prior. Backing up the entire Soyuz MS-17 crew are Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov, together with veteran NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei.
Born in Farmington, Conn., on 14 October 1978, Rubins grew up wanting to be “in order, an astronaut, a geologist and a biologist”. Her initial aspiration in achieving her first goal was to become a fighter pilot, but she was instead introduced to public health prevention of HIV in high school and a DNA conference carried her career into the biological sciences. She received her degree in molecular biology from the University of California at San Diego, then entered the Infectious Diseases Laboratory at La Jolla’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies to analyze HIV integration mechanisms.
During this period, Rubins earned a doctorate in cancer biology from Stanford University and worked with the U.S. Army and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop the first model of smallpox infection. She subsequently served as a principal investigator at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., leading a team with an emphasis upon viral diseases in Central and West Africa.
Rubins’ work included the genome sequencing and therapy development for the Ebola and Marbug filoviruses and Lassa Fever. A scuba diver and triathlon competitor, as well as a keen aviator and parachutist, she was picked as a NASA astronaut candidate in June 2009.
Rubins completed her first mission in 2016, launching aboard the first upgraded Soyuz-MS vehicle in early July and returning to Earth the following October, to complete 115 days in space. Flying shoulder-to-shoulder with Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Ivanishin—with whom she will reunite for a few days this month—and Japan’s Takuya Onishi, their stay on the ISS as part of Expeditions 48/49 was packed with more than 275 experiments in molecular and cellular biology, human physiology, fluid and combustion physics, Earth and space science and technology development.
Notably, Rubins was the first person to sequence DNA in space, eventually sequencing two billion base-pairs of DNA during a series of investigations to analyze sequencing in microgravity.
Together with Expedition 48 Commander Jeff Williams, she also performed two sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA), totaling 12 hours and 46 minutes, during which they installed International Docking Adapter (IDA)-2—to be used next month by Crew-1 and their trusty ship, Dragon Resilience—and retracted the Trailing Thermal Control Radiator (TTCR) on the port-side P-6 truss. For Rubins, spacewalking was undoubtedly the highlight of her first mission. “You don’t realize what it’s like,” she said of the ISS, “when you’re inside it”, adding that she snapped a photograph of Williams with the enormity of the space station directly behind him.
When Soyuz MS-02 reached the ISS in October 2016, for a few days, Rubins got to experience space with cosmonaut Sergei Ryzhikov. Born in the town of Bugulma, in today’s Republic of Tatarstan, on 19 August 1974 Ryzhikov graduated from the Kachin Higher Military Aviation School and became a pilot-engineer in the Russian Air Force. He then spent a decade in a diverse range of aviation assignments, flying L-39 high-performance jet trainers and MiG-29 fighters. He was selected for cosmonaut training in October 2006 and his first assignment was to the backup crew of Soyuz TMA-20M, which flew in March-September 2016.
Ryzhikov launched on 19 October of that year aboard Soyuz MS-02, alongside Russian cosmonaut Andrei Borisenko and NASA’s Shane Kimbrough, and went on to spend 173 days in space as part of Expeditions 49 and 50. Returning to Earth in April 2017, he then completed no fewer than three backup assignments, in support of last year’s Soyuz MS-13 and MS-15 missions and the current and ongoing Soyuz MS-16.
With Ryzhikov commanding Soyuz MS-17 from the spacecraft’s center seat, and with Rubins to his right in the Flight Engineer-2 couch, the left-hand Flight Engineer-1 couch will be occupied by “rookie” cosmonaut Sergei Kud-Sverchkov. Born at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan—Russia’s premier spaceport—on 23 August 1983, Kud-Sverchkov graduated from Moscow State Technical University in 2006 with a degree in rocket engineering.
He went on to gain employment at the RSC Energia design bureau, where he remained until he was selected for cosmonaut training in April 2010. One of his classmates was Ivan Vagner, currently in orbit. This mission will be Kud-Sverchkov’s first assignment in any capacity and he is one of the rarity of cosmonauts to have never completed a backup duty before rotating into a prime crew.
For her own part, Rubins earlier this year came off a duty as NASA’s director of operations in Star City, a post she held throughout 2019. And when she launches from Baikonur on Wednesday, she will become only the fifth American (and the first-ever woman) to launch on a birthday.
“I’m a biologist,” she told yesterday’s news conference. “I tend to get really excited about growing cells and culture.” On her first mission in 2016, she found that moving around in space—during which she found herself initially clinging to hand rails for stability—took two to four weeks to figure out fully. It was “not so much a lesson, but the ability to work in space”, she said, as well as developing the spatial awareness to assemble a new experiment or piece of hardware whilst ensuring that its pieces were tied or Velcroed down and did not float away from her grasp.
Docking at the station a record-setting three hours and two orbits after liftoff, Rubins, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov will be welcomed aboard by incumbent Expedition 63 Commander Chris Cassidy and crewmates Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. The six-strong group will spend a week working together, before Cassidy & Co. return to Earth late on 21 October.
At this point, Ryzhikov will rotate into the command of Expedition 64 through April 2021. And with U.S. astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, together with Japanese veteran Soichi Noguchi, slated to ride Dragon Resilience into orbit for Crew-1 no sooner than early-to-mid November, Rubins, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov can expect theirs to become the first ISS expedition to have as many as seven astronauts and cosmonauts.
Rubins noted that it will be “incredible to have seven people on the space station” and expects to conduct “a large amount of science right out of the gate”. She anticipates that a larger crew will pay dividends in terms of preparing for exploration of the Moon and missions farther afield to Mars, through testing enhanced carbon dioxide atmospheric scrubbing systems, exploration systems, new types of atmospheric revitalization systems, improved space suit components and a greater overall research output.