NASA’s oldest active astronaut Don Pettit to make 4th trip to ISS on Sept. 11

NASA’s oldest active astronaut will return to space for a six-month mission in September.

Don Pettit, 69, will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) as a part of the Roscosmos-led Soyuz MS-26 mission, which includes Russian cosmonauts Alexey Ovchinin and Ivan Vagner. 

Russian state media source TASS said this week that the launch date will be on Sept. 11. The NASA astronaut’s assignment, announced in May, will see Pettit make his fourth journey to space to add on to 370 days accumulated days in orbit. His previous missions included Expedition 6 in 2003, the short-duration space shuttle mission STS-126 in 2008, and Expedition 30/31 in 2012. 

The launch of MS-26 will also be Ovchinin’s third flight, after Expeditions 47/48 and Expeditions 59/60, and Vagner’s second after Expedition 62/63.

Related: ‘Spaceborne’: Astronaut Don Pettit’s amazing space photos (gallery)

Pettit’s Expedition 6 mission was unexpectedly extended in orbit. He and the rest of the crew launched on space shuttle Endeavour along with mission STS-113 on Nov. 24, 2002. Less than three months later, tragedy struck. The Columbia space shuttle broke up during reentry on Feb. 1, 2003, killing seven astronauts. Expedition 6 was unable to come back to Earth aboard shuttle Discovery, as planned.

NASA grounded its shuttle fleet for two years to investigate the cause of the accident and make remedies. While factors such as schedule pressure were cited in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s six-volume report, the primary cause of the disaster was damage caused by a piece of foam falling from a strut onto the shuttle’s external tank, which damaged the spacecraft wing and made it vulnerable during the heat of re-entry. 

In the meantime, Pettit’s crew safely returned home on the Russian Soyuz TMA-1 spacecraft on May 4, 2003 after a rare glitch during landing that led to re-entry and retrieval issues. The issue — later determined to have a 1 in 7000 chance of occurring — led to a fault in the guidance system causing the spacecraft to land about 250 miles (400 km) short of its planned landing site, according to the European Space Agency.

The Russian Soyuz MS-22 space capsule descends under its main parachute as it lands on the steppes of Kazakhstan on March 28, 2023. NASA astronaut Don Pettit had an unusual descent aboard Soyuz in 2003 that put his landing far off target, but his crew was retrieved safely after a delay. (Image credit: Roscosmos)

During re-entry, the crew experienced loads of eight times Earth’s gravity compared to the normal six. They also were not picked up by helicopter for five hours in part due to communications issues that led to uncertainty about their landing zone, according to RussianSpaceWeb.

Pettit was selected by NASA in 1993 and will be making his first flight to space in a dozen years. His time in orbit includes two spacewalks, with 13 hours and 17 minutes accumulated in a spacesuit. One of his spacewalking milestones includes installing an ISS system that transforms urine into potable water, reducing the need for water shipments from Earth. Pettit is also the first astronaut to capture SpaceX’s cargo Dragon spacecraft in orbit on May 25, 2012, using the Canadarm2 robotic arm. 

Pettit’s achievements also include patenting a zero-G coffee cup, witnessing a solar eclipse from space, capturing the historic transit of Venus across the sun in 2012 from the ISS, and taking incredible timelapse photography out the window.

Expedition 31 Flight Engineer Don Pettit took photos of star trails, terrestrial lights, airglow and auroras while aboard the International Space Station. Image taken April 5, 2012. (Image credit: Don Pettit)

While Pettit is NASA’s oldest active astronaut, several other professional astronauts in their 60s have flown to space, including retired NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson (64) and Michael López-Alegría (66) who are now commanding missions with Houston-based Axiom Space. Also, even older individuals with agency affiliations or connections have flown to orbit over the decades. 

Retired NASA astronaut John Glenn, for example, flew on space shuttle Discovery mission STS-95 in 1998 at age 77. Glenn, a senator at the time, was part of the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging. He made NASA a pitch to fly himself to investigate how spaceflight is similar to aging, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

Earlier this year, Ed Dwight flew into space at age 90 aboard a suborbital Blue Origin mission called NS-25, making him the oldest person to fly to space. Dwight was selected by then-President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to train at the U.S. Air Force’s Aerospace Research Pilot School. As ARPS was a gateway to NASA’s astronaut corps back then, Dwight was the United States’ first Black astronaut candidate, but NASA didn’t select him despite endorsement by the Air Force for spaceflight. 

Another Blue Origin flight carried “Mercury 13” pioneer Wally Funk to space at age 82, in 2021. In the early 1960s, Funk was part of a group of women aviators privately evaluated for fitness to fly into space with comparison to NASA’s astronaut requirements at the time (the agency was only flying male astronauts back then, in large part because it recruited from the male-dominated U.S. military of the day). NASA, however, did not endorse the Mercury 13 program and ultimately selected the first women astronaut candidates in 1978.

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