After 166 days—or roughly 5.5 months—away from the Home Planet, Soyuz TMA-09M has returned safely to Earth, touching down on the barren steppe of central Kazakhstan with its three-member crew of Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, and Italy’s Luca Parmitano. The trio undocked their craft from the aft port of the International Space Station’s Zvezda module at 6:26 p.m. EST Sunday, 10 November, and executed a final de-orbit burn of their maneuvering thrusters about two hours later. Having separated the orbital and instrument modules of the Soyuz, the bell-shaped crew module began its perilous descent and landed at 8:49 a.m. local time Monday, 11 November (9:49 p.m. EST Sunday). Accompanying the crew was the red-and-chrome Olympic relay torch, ferried into orbit by Soyuz TMA-11M last Thursday and carried into open space by cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky during a historic EVA Saturday.
With the end of Soyuz TMA-09M, the curtain has finally fallen on Expedition 37, which was the 37th long-duration increment to the space station and the most recent phase of a continuous human presence aboard the multi-national outpost, extending back to November 2000. On Sunday, Yurchikhin ceremonially handed command of the ISS to Kotov—who arrived with Soyuz TMA-10M crewmates Ryazansky and NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins on 25 September—and the new Expedition 38 formally began. Kotov will now lead the station’s crew until mid-March 2014. With the departure of Yurchikhin, Nyberg, and Parmitano, Expedition 38 is now at its nominal, six-man strength, having been bolstered by last week’s arrival of Soyuz TMA-11M crewmen Mikhail Tyurin of Russia, Rick Mastracchio of NASA, and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata.
After undocking from the ISS, Yurchikhin executed a 15-second burst of Soyuz TMA-09M’s maneuvering thrusters to commence the relative separation from the space station. Two hours later, the main de-orbit burn got underway at 8:55 p.m. EST, committing the spacecraft to a fiery plunge back into the atmosphere, targeting a landing zone in central Kazakhstan, to the southeast of the city of Dzhezkazgan. Half an hour later, with the burn complete, the spherical orbital module and cylindrical instrument module were jettisoned, leaving the bell-shaped descent module—which housed Yurchikhin, Nyberg, and Parmitano in their specially contoured couches—alone for re-entry. As expected, Mission Control encountered a loss of communications with the crew, as super-heated plasma accrued around the Soyuz, but by 8:40 a.m. local time Monday, 11 November (9:40 p.m. EST Sunday), the worst was behind them and the drogue and main parachutes successfully deployed.
Moments before touchdown, solid-fueled rockets in the base of the descent module ignited, as planned, to cushion the impact. After more than five months away from home, Soyuz TMA-09M touched the soil of Earth at 8:49 a.m. local time (9:49 p.m. EST), about half an hour after local sunrise. From liftoff to landing, the mission had lasted 166 days, six hours, and 18 minutes. The landing spot was on a barren expanse of steppe, to the southeast of the city of Dzhezkazgan. Shortly thereafter, recovery forces opened the hatch and extracted the three tired—but thankfully healthy—crew members from the vehicle, handing Yurchikhin the Olympic torch, which had returned to Earth with them. Nyberg grinned, then donned a pair of sunglasses, whilst a jubilant Parmitano flashed a thumbs-up to onlookers. The trio will now undergo standard medical checks, ahead of reunion with family and friends in the coming hours.
Returning to Earth aboard Soyuz TMA-09M, Yurchikhin completed his fourth space voyage, having flown aboard the STS-112 shuttle mission in October 2002 and two previous ISS expeditions in April-October 2007 and June-November 2010. Across his quartet of flights, Yurchikhin has accrued more than 537 days—or 18 months of his life—in orbit. He has also supported a career total of eight spacewalks, three of which were executed with Expedition 36 crewmate Aleksandr Misurkin during this year’s stint aboard the ISS. Aged 54 years, 10 months, and about seven days at the time of landing, Yurchikhin slightly pips Aleksandr Kaleri by a handful of days and squeezes himself into third place on the list of oldest Russian cosmonauts. Only Pavel Vinogradov, who flew aboard Expedition 35/36 earlier this year, aged 59/60, and Valeri Ryumin, who was a member of the STS-91 shuttle crew in June 1998, aged 58, were older at the time of their respective missions.
With 166 days and six hours on this mission, combined with 13 days and 18 hours from her STS-124 shuttle flight, Karen Nyberg has now amassed a personal total of 180 days and has positioned herself in seventh place on the list of most experienced female astronauts or cosmonauts of all time. Her achievement places her a few hours shy of fellow NASA astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman, the current sixth-place holder who has totalled 180 days and four hours, and some way behind Tracy Caldwell-Dyson (188 days), Susan Helms (210 days), Shannon Lucid (223 days), Sunita Williams (321 days), and the all-time female record-holder, former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson (376 days). Nyberg’s time in space surpasses the total of the only female Russian cosmonaut to have performed a long-duration flight, Yelena Kondakova, who now resides in eighth place at 178 days.
Not to be outdone, Italy’s Luca Parmitano—the first member of the 2009 class of European Space Agency (ESA) astronauts to participate in a mission—has chalked up an impressive list of records of his own. Although he is not the first of his countrymen to have ventured into orbit, Parmitano is now one of Italy’s most flight-experienced. His 166-day total from Soyuz TMA-09M places him firmly into national second place behind Paolo Nespoli, who has accrued 174 days across two missions. (Having said this, Nespoli’s single long-duration mission in December 2010-May 2011 lasted 159 days, which makes Parmitano the undisputed record-holder for Italy’s longest single human space voyage.) However, Parmitano’s crowning achievement from his flight is undoubtedly the fact that on 9 July 2013 he became the first Italian ever to participate in a spacewalk. This brought him great media attention at the time, but was eclipsed a week later, during a second EVA on 16 July when he suffered water intrusion into his space suit helmet and both he and fellow spacewalker Chris Cassidy were hurriedly recalled to the airlock.
Yurchikhin, Nyberg, and Parmitano rocketed into space on the night of 28/29 May, becoming the second ISS crew to dock with the station just six hours and four orbits after launch. For the main part of their stay, Soyuz TMA-09M remained docked to the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module, but on 1 November—to make room for the arriving Soyuz TMA-11M—they performed a 21-minute relocation of their craft to the aft port of Zvezda, along the station’s longitudinal axis. Under normal circumstances, ISS Program managers prefer to utilize the nadir Rassvet and space-facing (“zenith”) Poisk modules for Soyuz vehicles, in order that Zvezda’s aft port can be occupied by Progress or Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo ships for orbital reboost purposes. However, since Soyuz TMA-09M was slated to depart the ISS on 10 November and the next Progress is not due until 25 November, the brief relocation did not pose any complications.
In addition to science and spacewalks, Yurchikhin, Nyberg, and Parmitano were also aboard for the arrivals and departures of numerous visiting vehicles from the International Partners. These included Europe’s fourth Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-4) “Albert Einstein,” launched in June; then Japan’s fourth H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-4) “Kounotori” (“White Stork”), launched in August; and, most recently, Orbital Sciences’ long-awaited Demonstration Mission (ORB-D) of its commercial Cygnus cargo ship, launched in September. For the first half of their stay, they formed the second half of the Expedition 36 crew, joining Soyuz TMA-08M’s Vinogradov, Misurkin, and Cassidy, and supported several spacewalks. With the return of Soyuz TMA-08M to Earth on 11 September, Yurchikhin took command of the station’s Expedition 37 and with Nyberg and Parmitano spent two weeks as a three-member crew, ahead of the 25 September launch of Soyuz TMA-10M and Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins. This restored the ISS to six-person strength, which was boosted briefly to nine members with last week’s arrival of Soyuz TMA-11M and Tyurin, Mastracchio, and Wakata.
Looking ahead, the coming months are loaded heavily with visiting vehicles for the new Expedition 38 crew. On 25 November, Russia’s Progress M-21M cargo ship is due to launch and after several days of rendezvous hardware tests should dock at the station before the end of this month. Orbital’s first dedicated Cygnus mission under its $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA—designated “ORB-1″—is slated for a mid-December launch, followed by Progress M-22M and SpaceX’s third dedicated Dragon cargo ship (SpX-3) in February 2014. Hopes that Russia’s long-delayed Nauka Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module (MLM) might reach space before the end of the year became untenable several months ago, and with launch now postponed until at least September 2015, several EVAs have been deferred or removed from the manifest. Only one spacewalk will occur from the Russian Segment, featuring cosmonauts Kotov and Tyurin, on 23 December.