Astronaut Chris Cassidy knew eight months ago he’d spend most of March in quarantine.

He had no idea it would be to protect him from infection during a global pandemic.

The Maine native is set to launch this week for his third stay on the International Space Station. Being quarantined before a launch is standard practice, but because of the coronavirus outbreak, his departure with two Russian cosmonaut crew mates will lack the traditional fanfare associated with spacecraft launches.

Jessica Meir, NASA astronaut and Caribou, Maine, native.

Cassidy, 49, has been safe from contamination in pre-flight quarantine since early March, when he traveled to Star City, Russia, with his wife. He recently traveled to Kazakhstan, where he is set to launch April 9 from the Baiknour Cosmodrome aboard a Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft. After a four-orbit, six-hour flight, Cassidy will dock at the space station, where he will spend his first several days on board with fellow Mainer Jessica Meir, who is wrapping up her first 6-month space mission.

Meir is scheduled to return to earth in less than two weeks, while Cassidy will remain in orbit until October.

During interviews from Star City, last month, Cassidy described how the coronavirus pandemic has affected preparations for his third space mission. Astronauts spend time before they leave in quarantine, but there was a heightened sense of caution this time around.

Typically, astronauts can bring 15 guests, including their spouse and children, to the cosmodrome for the launch. This time, there will be no guests and there will be limited launch support, Cassidy said in media interviews last month from Star City. When the crew leaves the hotel to travel to the launch pad, the sidewalks are usually lined with cheering crowds and music is playing.

“It’s very, very motivating and super exciting,” Cassidy told CBS last month. “It will be completely quiet. There won’t be anybody there. Maybe we’ll still put on the music and fire up the three of us ourselves, but who knows.”

Cassidy told the Associated Press that part of him is glad to get away during an uncertain time that is “not like any (other) time in our lives, as a generation really.”

American astronaut Chris Cassidy, a York, Maine, native. NASA photo

“(It’s like) where were you when JFK was shot, where were you when we landed on the moon and where were you when coronavirus was happening, and I’ll have my own interesting story to tell in years to come,” he said.

Cassidy’s crew includes Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner of the Russian space agency Roscosmos. Ivanishin and Vagner were assigned to the mission in February, replacing two different cosmonauts, Nikolai Tikhonov and Andrei Babkin. Both Russian and American officials have only said that a medical issue led to their replacement. Cassidy said last month that it was a “seamless” transition to working with Ivanishin and Vagner.

When they arrive at the space station, the crew will join Meir, NASA flight engineer Drew Morgan and Expedition 62 Commander Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos. When those three leave the space station nine days later, Cassidy will become commander of Expedition 63 – and the only American on board, just as he was for two weeks in 2013. A change of command ceremony is planned for April 15.

Far from a space rookie, Cassidy said he is still just as excited each time he goes to the space station. He said he is looking forward to “just looking at Earth” from space and living aboard the space station.

“There’s a certain level of satisfaction that comes with really understanding the space station and feeling like you have the knowledge to operate this amazing piece of machinery,” he told the Portland Press Herald in November when his mission was announced.

At the Cosmonaut Hotel crew quarters in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, Expedition 63 crew members Chris Cassidy of NASA, right, and Anatoly Ivanishin of Roscosmos take a spin April 1 to test their vestibular systems as part of pre-launch training. Photo by Andrey Shelepin

In mid-May, Cassidy and the other Expedition 63 crew members will welcome astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who are slated to arrive on NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 flight test.

Cassidy, who now lives in Houston, was a standout athlete at York High School, graduating in 1988. He went on to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1993 and serve four deployments as a SEAL in Afghanistan and the Mediterranean. He also earned a master’s degree in ocean engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000.

Cassidy first traveled to space aboard the shuttle Endeavour in 2009. On that mission, he became the 500th person to fly in space. During the 16-day mission, he participated in three spacewalks to help install the Japanese Kibo laboratory’s exposed facility and replace solar array batteries on the Port 6 truss of the space station, NASA said.

International Space Station NASA

In 2013, Cassidy spent 166 days aboard the International Space Station, which traveled 70 million miles orbiting Earth while Cassidy was aboard.

During that trip, Cassidy was involved in a dramatic and dangerous situation while on a spacewalk with Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano. An hour into a planned 6 1/2-hour spacewalk, water began creeping into Parmitano’s helmet, which could have suffocated him. Cassidy was able to guide Parmitano back into the airlock so the helmet could be removed.

Cassidy, who speaks often of his love for Maine, said he will miss the smell of summer in Maine – fresh-cut grass, the ocean and rocky coast – while he’s in space, but he’ll bring a reminder with of home with him in the form of blueberry jam. In 2014, NASA sent Maine blueberry jam from Stonewall Kitchen to the space station for Cassidy, who made the same request this time around.

“Blueberry jam is coming with me this time,” he said. “I’ll eat it at home or in space or on top of a mountain.”

NASA will broadcast live coverage of the launch and docking early Thursday morning on NASA TV. Launch coverage begins at 3 a.m. and docking will be shown at 9:30 a.m. The hatch opening and welcome coverage is expected to begin at noon.

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