At 15:20 CEST (13:20 GMT) Wednesday 2 October, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano will become the third European and first Italian commander of the International Space Station during an official change of command ceremony broadcast live on NASA TV.

Luca will take over command from departing Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin, marking the start of Expedition 61 and the second part of Luca’s second space mission known as Beyond.

The ringing of a bell on board and a symbolic hatch key handed from one commander to the other will signify the change in leadership.

Europe in command  

The full title of Luca’s new role is International Space Station crew commander. While overall command of the Station lies with ground-based flight directors unless there is an emergency on board, the role of crew commander is vital to mission success. 

ESA astronaut and current head of ESA’s astronaut centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany, Frank De Winne was the first European appointed to the commanding role. This was during his OasISS mission in 2009. He was followed by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst in 2018, who held the role during the second part of his Horizons mission.

Frank De Winne at work on the ISS. ESA/NASA.

Frank says the International Space Station crew commander holds responsibility for crew morale and wellbeing. It is up to them to ensure crew members are able to perform the tasks required of them during their time in space.  

He is confident Luca will do an excellent job and believes the appointment of two European commanders in quick succession says a lot about Europe’s position as a trusted partner.

“People can rely on us, and they do rely on us,” Frank explains. “Not only in terms of the hardware that we provide to the Space Station and now the service module for Orion, but also in the area of crew operations.

“I think that is a very good result of the investment European member states have made.”  

Luca has also expressed his pride in the appointment, saying “I am honoured that the Space Station programme chose me for this role, and at the same time I am humbled by the task.

“Being the commander of the most trained and proficient people on and off Earth can be daunting. I see myself as a facilitator, my goal will be to put everybody in the condition to perform to the best of their capability. Ultimately, though, I am responsible for the safety of the crew and the Station, and for overall mission success.”

Full steam ahead

Luca takes over command at a particularly busy time for Station operations.

A number of spacewalks are scheduled for November to extend the life of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) – a state-of-the-art cosmic-ray detector designed to examine fundamental properties of dark matter, antimatter and missing matter and the origin of the Universe.

Later in November, Luca is also expected to remotely control a robot on Earth to collect geological samples under the direction of scientists as part of an experiment called Analog-1.

Who’s who of the Space Station crew

Luca has been living and working on board the International Space Station since arriving with NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov in the Russian Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft on 21 July 2019.

Expedition 60 commander Alexei Ovchinin, NASA astronaut Nick Hague and United Arab Emirates (UAE) astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri, who just completed an eight-day mission, will return to Earth in the Soyuz MS-12 on 3 October.

Nine astronauts on the Space Station. ESA/NASA.

NASA astronauts Christina Koch, Andrew Morgan and Jessica Meir and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Skripochka will remain on Station as the crew of Expedition 61.

Luca is currently scheduled to remain on Station as Space Station commander until February 2020 when he will return to Earth with Alexander and Christina.