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Kazakh cosmonaut to replace Brightman on space station trip

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jun 22, 2015, 19:50 UTC

Sen—A 43-year-old Kazakh cosmonaut, Aidyn Aimbetov, will replace British singer Sarah Brightman on a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) in September, Russian officials announced Monday.

Aimbetov will join a three-member crew of the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft, following Brightman's withdrawal from training for the flight. The team also includes the Russian commander Sergei Volkov and Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen, representing the European Space Agency (ESA).

Soyuz TMA-18M is currently scheduled for launch on Sept. 1, 2015. After arrival at the station, Sergei Volkov will replace Gennady Padalka who will complete a more than five-month stay aboard the ISS. However Padalka's crewmates—astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko—will remain on the station as they experience a year in space. As a result, two seats will be available on the way to the station on board Soyuz TMA-18M and on board the currently flying Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft during its trip back to Earth.

One Soyuz always stays docked at the station to provide evacuation for a three-member crew, and two lifeboats are parked at the outpost when a full six-person crew is onboard. Each spacecraft has to be replaced after around six months in orbit.

After the approval of the year-long mission, one available seat onboard Soyuz was reserved for the European space agency, while the third seat had been booked commercially for Sarah Brightman before she discontinued her training in April.

After Brightman had formally announced her withdrawal from the crew on May 13, Roscosmos proposed to fly a Kazakh cosmonaut to the government of the former Soviet republic, presumably on a commercial basis. According to the Kazakh press, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and his Kazakh counterpart Bakytzhan Sagintaev discussed the issue in Baikonur on June 2 during celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the Soviet launch site on the Kazakh territory.

Aimbetov will be the third space traveler representing the Central Asian Republic, which became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Kazakhstan currently leases the former Soviet launch site in Baikonur to Russia. As a result, the flight to the ISS, currently marketed at around $35 million, could be a part of the $115-million annual rent.

The Kazakh government first initiated the latest effort to fly its cosmonaut to the ISS in January 2000 and selected two candidates for the flight—Aidyn Aimbetov and Mukhtar Aimakhanov, who began training in Star City, near Moscow in 2003. However after many delays, the plan was abandoned in 2009 due to financial reasons. To fulfill his dream for spaceflight, Aymakhanov became a Russian citizen in 2012, while Aimbetov publically stated that he would fly in space "only under the Kazakh flag." His "patriotic" stance appears now to have paid off, because Kazakh authorities indicated that they would "pay" only for the flight of a Kazakh citizen.

Russia launched the first Kazakh cosmonaut Toktar Aubakirov to the Mir space station in October 1991 to mend fences with the newly independent republic in the wake of the Soviet collapse. To provide a seat onboard the Soyuz for Aubakirov, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev agreed to stay his second, previously unplanned shift on Mir. In turn, it triggered reports in the West claiming that Krikalev was forgotten in space after the fall of the USSR.

The former Soviet cosmonat Talgat Musabaev, who became a Kazakh citizen, flew three missions onboard the Russian spacecraft in 1994, 1998 and 2001. Musabaev has led the Kazakh space agency, KazCosmos, since 2007.