Published March 27, 2009
The Thursday launch of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying the world's first repeat space tourist and a new crew for the International Space Station has boosted the population of space to its historical max: 13 people.
The population boom ties the record for the maximum number of people in space at the same time. It is relatively rare but could become more commonplace once the space station shifts to a larger, six-person crew in late May.
"This is the highest that we've seen," NASA spokesperson Nicole Cloutier-Lemasters told SPACE.com Friday from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Here's the baker's dozen breakdown of the three spaceships in orbit today:
-- Soyuz TMA-14: Three people aboard, including space tourist Charles Simonyi and the new Expedition 19 crew for the station which numbers two, a Russian and an American. Launched Thursday and will arrive at the station Saturday morning.
-- Space Shuttle Discovery: Seven people aboard, returning from the space station after delivering the last pair of U.S. solar wings to the orbiting laboratory, boosting it to full power during their STS-119 mission. The shuttle is due to land Saturday in Florida to end a 13-day spaceflight.
-- International Space Station: Currently home to three astronauts, one each from the United States, Russia and Japan. Two will return home April 7 with Simonyi to end their Expedition 18 mission.
The first time 13 people flew in space was March 1995, when two Russians and an American launched on a Soyuz, joining three cosmonauts aboard the Mir Space Station and seven astronauts on space shuttle Endeavour, which was in orbit on a separate mission, according to collectSPACE.com, a SPACE.com partner.
Since then, similar cosmic "traffic jams" have occurred several times, NASA officials said.
The last time the space population surpassed 10 astronauts was in 2006 during NASA's STS-115 mission, when the shuttle Atlantis was headed home. Three spaceflyers were aboard the station and three more were en route to the outpost aboard a Soyuz.
But that traffic jam fell short of the maximum. Atlantis carried a crew of six astronauts, with the orbital population topping out at 12. Those three spacecraft shared a rare ship-to-ship phone call before Atlantis landed.
The current party breaks up soon.
Discovery is due to land tomorrow on a runway at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 1:38 p.m. EDT (1738 GMT) to end a mission that delivered a new crewmember and final solar arrays to the space station.
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