After 199 days in space, Soyuz TMA-15M has safely returned to Earth, bringing Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, U.S. astronaut Terry Virts and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti, back to a touchdown near the industrial city of Jezkazgan, in north-central Kazakhstan, at 7:44 p.m. local time (9:44 a.m. EDT) Thursday, 11 June. Their parachute-assisted landing on the desolate Kazakh steppe followed an exceptionally smooth undocking from the International Space Station (ISS) at 6:20 a.m. EDT and a picture-perfect descent back through the “sensible” atmosphere. It brought about a whole raft of achievements, personal accomplishments and empirical records for the three spacefarers. Cristoforetti now holds the record for the longest single mission ever undertaken by a woman, whilst Virts has just wrapped up the second longest flight in history by a U.S. citizen and Shkaplerov has now spent a little over 365 days in orbit, across his two missions. Their longer than expected flight has seen them support three U.S. EVAs, welcome two SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicles, bid farewell to Europe’s last Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), perform hundreds of scientific and medical experiments and formally greet One-Year crewmen Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko.
As noted in AmericaSpace’s Expedition 43 overview on Tuesday, Soyuz TMA-15M was originally intended to land on 14 May, with Virts due to hand over control of the ISS to Expedition 44 Commander Gennadi Padalka, whose own crew would be expanded to full, six-person strength with the arrival of Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, U.S. astronaut Kjell Lindgren and Japan’s Kimiya Yui aboard Soyuz TMA-17M on 26/27 May. Unfortunately, the failure of Russia’s Progress M-27M resupply craft in late April—whose launch vehicle suffered a third-stage malfunction, effectively dooming the unpiloted cargo mission—led to the temporary suspension of all flights by Soyuz boosters, pending a full investigation and corrective actions.
In response to the failure, the launch of Soyuz TMA-17M has been postponed until no sooner than 23-25 July. This would have created an undesirably protracted 2.5-month period with the ISS at a reduced, three-man strength. In order to limit this period at minimum crew capability—and also aware of the approximately six-month orbital lifetime of Soyuz TMA-15M, which has been in space since late November—the return of Virts, Shkaplerov and Cristoforetti was extended as far to the right as possible, producing a movement of their landing to 11 June. Although Russia issued preliminary findings of its investigation on 22 May, it appeared that the third-stage problem was relatively straightforward to resolve, for the Soyuz booster returned to service on 5 June to deliver a classified Kobalt-M photographic reconnaissance satellite into low-Earth orbit from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia’s far-northern Arkhangelsk Oblast. More recently, Novosti Kosmonavtiki has reported that Progress M-28M will head to the ISS on 3 July.
As described on his Twitter feed, Terry Virts spent part of his free time in the last few days observing the glorious Home Planet—watching noctilucent clouds with Scott Kelly on Monday morning, completing his 100th Vine video from space, observing the progress of Hurricane Blanca to the south of Mexico and expressing wonderment at what orbital sunrises might look like around other worlds. Many of these observations were conducted from the station’s multi-windowed cupola, which now enjoys a virtually unobstructed view of the Home Planet and of the entire Earth-facing (or “nadir”) side of the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS), following the recent relocation of the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM). “It is easy,” he wrote on Sunday, in a tweet which accompanied a spectacular view of a cloud-bedecked Earth, “to find tranquility from the cupola.” He also expressed a measure of sorrow about leaving the magical environment which he and his crewmates have called home for more than six months. “I’m really going to miss sleeping in weightlessness,” Virts tweeted last Friday. “It is absolutely wonderful.”
Clearly, the additional 28 days added onto the expedition of Virts, Shkaplerov and Cristoforetti was put to good use, with expanded scientific research, the unberthing and departure of SpaceX’s CRS-6 Dragon cargo ship and the earlier-than-planned relocation of the Leonardo PMM from the Unity nadir port to Tranquility forward, in anticipation of the delivery of International Docking Adapters (IDAs) and future Commercial Crew operations. At the same time, however, the trio—who represent the air forces of the United States, Russia and Italy—have spent their free time acquiring stunning imagery of the iridescence of life on their home world: from fishing vessels plying the waters between Vietnam and Hong Kong to the “treat for the eyes” presented by each pass over the Algerian desert, and from Anton Shkaplerov’s stunning view of Patagonian glaciers in South America to Cristoforetti’s regular “Buona notte dallo spazio” (“Goodnight from space”) salutations, always accompanied by a spectacular view of Earth.
Yesterday (Wednesday), Virts ceremonially drew down the curtain on Expedition 43 and transferred the mantle to Gennadi Padalka, who will lead Expedition 44 through mid-September, becoming the first person to command as many as four discrete ISS increments. Padalka previously led Expedition 9 in April-October 2004, Expedition 19/20 in March-October 2009 and Expedition 32 in July-September 2012. In delivering his change-of-command address, Virts thanked the mission control and science support teams around the world. “It was because of your support,” he said, “and watching over us every day and helping us to execute our plan that this mission was so successful.”
Touchingly, Virts also paid tribute to Shkaplerov and Cristoforetti—“my brother and sister, you guys are the best”—and described the Expedition 44 core crew of Padalka, Kornienko and Kelly as “the best of the best”. All three have previous long-duration experience, with Padalka due to eclipse fellow cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev’s cumulative 803-day record on 28 June and become holder of the achievement for the greatest amount of time spent in space by a human being. Virts handed the microphone over to Padalka, who expressed his own thanks to the Expedition 43 team for keeping the ISS in such great shape and for supporting his own crew upon their arrival in March. “No matter how many flights you have,” said Padalka, who is on his fifth career space mission with Expedition 44, “it’s always like a new station, a first flight.” He closed his remarks by wishing the outgoing crew a “soft, safe landing” to conclude their long mission.
Also, yesterday, Virts managed to acquire stunning images of the 4,500-year-old Pyramids of Giza from orbit. “It took me until my last day in space,” he tweeted to his 205,000 followers, “to get a good picture of these!” For her part, Samantha Cristoforetti tweeted thanks to actress Susan Sarandon for helping to spark girls’ interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and wistfully remarked “It’s been an amazing journey, thx for coming along! Now time to go home to Earth”. In doing so, she shared an image of herself, floating in the space station’s multi-windowed cupola, together with two 100-Day patches, to signify her 200th overall day in orbit. By the time of touchdown, Cristoforetti, Shkaplerov and Virts would be just eight hours of 200 full days away from the Home Planet.
Earlier today, they moved through the tunnel connecting the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module to their Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft and shared a poignant few moments of farewell with Padalka, Kornienko and Kelly, shortly before 3 a.m. EDT. Amidst hugs, fists punching the air and a camera-toting Kelly taking photographs, the outgoing crew headed into their spacecraft and closed the hatches. Following a series of leak checks to verify the air-tightness of the seal between the two vehicles, together with communications checks, donning of their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits and taking salt-enriched tablets to assist with the onset of terrestrial gravity, the time drew near for their planned 6:20 a.m. EDT undocking from Rassvet.
Overseeing the U.S. side of the operation from the Mission Control Center (MCC) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, was a team headed by Flight Director Zebulon “Zeb” Scoville, who polled his team about a half-hour ahead of undocking for their consensus, then relayed his state of readiness to Russian Mission Control, just outside Korolev, formerly the city of Kaliningrad, within Moscow Oblast. Mr. Scoville, who was appointed to JSC’s team of flight directors last year, has an extensive career within NASA, as an EVA instructor and flight controller, with experience in both Space Shuttle and ISS operations. With all teams having declared their readiness to support today’s undocking, at 6:19 a.m. EDT the approximately 90-second period of opening grappling hooks to release Soyuz TMA-15M got underway. The two spacecraft parted company on time at 6:20 a.m., as the complex passed about 252 miles (405 km) above southern Mongolia.
With Shkaplerov commanding the return to Earth from the center seat, and Cristoforetti to his left as “Board Engineer-1” and Virts to his right as “Board Engineer-2”, the trio initiated a rapid withdrawal from the ISS. By 6:29 a.m., the second of two separation “burns” of Soyuz TMA-15M’s thrusters had been completed, allowing the spacecraft to depart the relative vicinity of the space station, before commencing its re-entry regime. After a brief period of free time to observe the Home Planet from orbit for the last time on this mission, efforts entered high gear to execute the irreversible deorbit burn to slow Soyuz TMA-15M sufficiently to allow it to descend into the dense upper atmosphere. “The deorbit burn has just started,” noted AmericaSpace’s Launch Tracker at 8:52:55 a.m. EDT. “The burn will last for four minutes and 40 seconds.” The burn concluded with crisp perfection at 8:57:29 a.m. “Everything looks good,” stressed our Tracker.
The good wishes rolled in for a safe and successful return to Earth. “Fair winds and following seas my good friends @AstroTerry, @AstroSamantha, and @AntonAstrey. #YearInSpace”, tweeted Scott Kelly, shortly after the undocking and departure. “Successful engine firing,” remarked former astronaut Chris Hadfield, who commanded Canada’s first ISS mission, two years ago. “Now about 45 minutes of heat, pyrotechnic explosions, high-G forces & then a car crash, until safely home.” Others who have yet to make the journey also offered their good wishes, including Frenchman Thomas Pesquet, who expressed sheer thrill to hear the call “Deorbit burn complete, no anomalies” on the Mission Control loops. “The hardest part is done,” he tweeted. “Brace for the ride, @AstroSamantha.”
A little over a quarter-hour later, the spherical orbital module and cylindrical instrument module were jettisoned, as planned, leaving Shkaplerov, Virts and Cristoforetti ensconced inside the beehive-shaped descent module, which would protect them from the searing temperatures of the perilous hypersonic fall back to Earth. “Entry Interface” (EI)—the point at which the spacecraft was subjected to rapid heating of its outer surfaces, caused by friction with steadily thickening atmospheric gases—was encountered at 9:18 a.m., at an altitude of 400,000 feet (122 km).
Eight minutes later, the descent module streaked, meteor-like, through the sky at a velocity in excess of 515 mph (830 km/h), heading for its touchdown point, targeted about 92 miles (148 km) south of Jezkazgan. By 7:20 p.m. local time (9:20 a.m. EDT), with 23 minutes remaining before landing, 12 Russian Mi-8 search and rescue helicopters began executing oval-shaped flight patterns in readiness for the arrival of Soyuz TMA-15M. The spacecraft’s enormous rate of descent was arrested rapidly, thanks chiefly to the deployment of four parachutes. “I remember counting down to Parachute Opening,” astronaut Cady Coleman tweeted, during this critical phase. “You’re falling sooo fast, then the most abrupt pull-up…mouths closed, please!”
Two “pilot” chutes were initially released, followed by the 258-square-foot (24-square-meter) drogue, which slowed Soyuz TMA-15M to about 180 mph (290 km/h). Finally, the main canopy—with a fully deployed surface area of 10,764 square feet (1,000 square meters)—was unfurled, shifting Soyuz TMA-15M’s attitude to a 30-degree angle, relative to the ground. This steadily dissipated heat, then shifted it back to a straight-vertical descent profile for landing. “Good ’chutes!!! Bring it home!” tweeted astronaut Vic Glover, a sentiment shared by fellow Group 21 astronaut Anne McClain, watching from MCC-Houston. The main canopy slowed the descent module to a stately 16.4 mph (26.4 km/h), still too fast for a safe landing. The turn then came for the solid-fueled rockets in Soyuz TMA-15M’s base, which fired in the last two seconds to cushion the touchdown at 7:44 p.m. local time (9:44 a.m. EDT).
Conditions at the landing site were near-perfect, with blue skies and wispy clouds and temperatures around 29 degrees Celsius, or the mid-80s Fahrenheit. Touchdown occurred about 94 minutes prior to local sunset, with the descent module landing in an upright position, allowing the crew to be extracted from the top hatch, which previously formed the junction to the orbital module. The 43rd long-duration crew of the ISS was safely home after an eventful expedition, which had spanned 199 days, 16 hours and 43 minutes, completed 3,184 orbits of Earth and traveled in excess of 84.2 million miles (135.5 million km). In the coming hours, Shkaplerov will board an aircraft to transport him back to the Zvezdny Gorodok (“Star City”) cosmonauts’ training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, to be reunited with his family and commence post-flight rehabilitation. Meanwhile, Virts and Cristoforetti will soon board a NASA Gulfstream III aircraft at the Kazakh city of Karaganda for the flight back to Ellington Field in Houston, Texas, to be received by their families, friends and colleagues from the Astronaut Office.
Today’s perfect landing brings about a whole raft of achievements, personal accomplishments and empirical records for the three spacefarers. Cristoforetti—who secured a record as soon as she left the launch pad, last 23/24 November, by becoming Italy’s first woman in space—accrued for herself, for her homeland and for Europe several key records. Originally scheduled to return to Earth on 14 May, after 171 days in orbit, she would have fallen just a few days shy of fellow countryman Paolo Nespoli’s 174-day national cumulative record for Italy, but with the extension of her flight she was able to surpass him on 17 May, then exceed Dutchman Andre Kuipers’ 194-day achievement on 5 June to become holder of the record for the longest single mission ever undertaken by a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut, and finally, a mere 24 hours later, she also surpassed U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams to seize the crown for the longest single mission by a woman.
The extended mission also enabled Terry Virts to pip fellow astronaut Mike Barratt into second place on the list of the longest single space missions ever undertaken by representatives of the United States. Only Mike Lopez-Alegria’s 215-day record, set during Expedition 14 between September 2006 and April 2007, now stands ahead of Virts, although both will be relegated to a lower position on the U.S. list in October 2015 as Scott Kelly enters the second half of his One-Year Mission. Not to be outdone, the unsung member of the Soyuz TMA-15M crew—Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, who commanded today’s return to Earth from the spacecraft’s center seat—has just barely scraped a full Earth-year of time off the planet, spread across his two career missions. At the point of touchdown in Kazakhstan, Shkaplerov accrued 365 days and 14 minutes, across his two missions, making him only the 32nd person in history to have spent longer than a full Earth-year in space.
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