Destined to fly a slightly shorter increment than normal to the International Space Station (ISS), the Expedition 48/49 crew of Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Ivanishin, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Japan’s Takuya Onishi gathered at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, earlier today (Wednesday, 9 March) to discuss their impending four-month voyage. Scheduled to launch from Baikonur on 21 June, they will fly the maiden outing of Russia’s new “Soyuz-MS” spacecraft and their time on-orbit is expected to feature the arrival of as many as seven visiting vehicles—including a new crew—and perhaps up to three EVAs. If Rubins participates in one of these EVAs, she will become the first U.S. female astronaut to undertake a spacewalk on her first flight since Nicole Stott in 2009.
As outlined previously by AmericaSpace, the Soyuz-MS is equipped with higher-efficiency solar arrays, better propulsion-system redundancy, the new “Kurs-NA” (“Course”) rendezvous hardware, a lighter flight computer and improved telemetry, control and autonomous navigation capabilities. It was planned to make its first flight in March 2016, delivering Russian cosmonauts Alexei Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka, together with NASA’s Jeff Williams, to orbit to form the second half of Expedition 47 and later the core of Expedition 48. However, it was recognized that the Soyuz-MS would not be ready for a March launch and Williams’ crew was switched onto Soyuz TMA-20M—the last member of the older-specification version of the spacecraft—which was originally earmarked for Ivanishin’s crew.
Outlining the Soyuz, Ivanishin stressed that the spacecraft is now in its fourth generation, since the maiden voyage of the vehicle which first carried Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov into orbit in April 1967. He told his audience that all equipment for the new Soyuz is first tested aboard the unpiloted Progress cargo freighter, many of whose design features mirror those of its crewed counterpart. Ivanishin explained that the Progress MS-02 launch, currently planned for 31 March, will serve to validate the remaining systems, before Soyuz-MS is cleared to fly. For Takuya Onishi, who will sit in the left-hand seat, as “Flight Engineer-1” during ascent and re-entry, the differences between Soyuz variants “are not so big and not so many from the crew’s perspective” and that they had “enough time to get ready for the new vehicle”, having worked on simulations since 2014. That said, Onishi noted that one of his key challenges in training was mastering the Soyuz systems: attending classes through the day, before hitting the books and studying until 2 a.m.
With Ivanishin, Rubins and Onishi now slated to fly the first Soyuz-MS, the additional time needed to prepare the new vehicle caused their launch to move from 20/21 May until the latter half of June. In order to reduce the amount of time that the ISS would operate a reduced, three-person capability, the increment of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, NASA astronaut Tim Kopra and Britain’s Tim Peake was correspondingly extended and will now end on 7 June. According to Novosti Kosmonavtiki, Soyuz-MS will launch from Baikonur at 10:46 a.m. Moscow Time (1:46 p.m. local time) on 21 June. It has become standard since 2013 for crews to follow a four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile to reach the space station and it can be expected that Ivanishin, Rubins and Onishi will rendezvous and dock with the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Rassvet module about six hours after launch. They will dock at the very same port which was recently vacated by Soyuz TMA-18M and the homeward-bound One-Year crew.
With the 47-year-old Ivanishin a veteran of one previous mission, having accrued 165 days in space during Expedition 29/30, as well as a decorated career as a Russian Air Force fighter pilot, the remainder of his crew are “rookies”. Cancer biologist Rubins, aged 37, was selected by NASA as a member of the 20th class of astronaut candidates in June 2009, whilst 41-year-old former Boeing 767 pilot Onishi was recruited by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), earlier that same year. After extensive Astronaut Candidate (ASCAN) training and technical duties, Onishi was assigned to the mission in November 2013, with Rubins announced the following summer. The trio trained initially as the backup crew for Soyuz TMA-19M, which launched successfully last 15 December, before rotating into their current role as the prime crew for Soyuz-MS.
Upon arrival at the ISS, Ivanishin, Rubins and Onishi will be greeted by the incumbent Expedition 48 crew of Williams, Ovchinin and Skripochka. The busy manifest of unpiloted visiting vehicles throughout the summer months requires the new arrivals to adapt quickly to their environs. According to Novosti, the launch of Orbital ATK’s OA-5 Cygnus mission—which will mark the first flight of the upgraded Antares 230 booster, following the catastrophic failure of its 130 variant in October 2014—has moved from late May until the end of June. Like its immediate predecessors, the recently-departed OA-4 and the soon-to-be-launched OA-6, this mission will utilize the Enhanced Cygnus configuration, capable of hauling more than 7,000 pounds (3,100 kg) of supplies to the ISS. This is more than 40 percent larger than the lifting capacity of the Standard Cygnus, which flew three successful missions between September 2013 and July 2014.
The manifest is, of course, subject to change, but assuming that SpaceX flies its CRS-8 Dragon—the eighth dedicated cargo mission under its initial Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA—in April, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) should be on-station by the time Ivanishin’s crew arrives. “We’re hoping that we’re going to be doing some work in BEAM and it depends a little bit where it falls,” Rubins explained in response to an AmericaSpace question. “We’re hoping Tim Kopra and Tim Peake get it all nice and outfitted for us and we can all be part of the experiment, but we will probably be doing some sensor installation. We are going to be looking at the pressure shell, we are going to be looking at radiation and a whole bunch of different parameters to evaluate these types of vessels docked to space station.”
At present, a Orbital ATK Cygnus and a SpaceX Dragon have never been berthed simultaneously at the station. That is expected to change later this year, with multiple arrivals and departures of NASA’s commercial cargo providers. By the time the OA-5 Cygnus reaches the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node, the CRS-8 Dragon should have departed, although CRS-9 is also tentatively scheduled to arrive at the end of June, berthing at the nadir interface of the Harmony node. If this schedule works out, it will present the first opportunity for both commercial providers to be on-station at the same time. CRS-9 will carry the second International Docking Adapter (IDA-2), which has been pressed into service as the primary means for future Commercial Crew vehicles to reach the ISS. Its near-twin, IDA-1, was lost in last year’s CRS-7 launch failure. Another IDA is in the process of being fabricated from structural spares and will be launched atop a subsequent Dragon in 2017 to provide a backup Commercial Crew docking port.
After CRS-9’s arrival, the 1,150-pound (520 kg) IDA-2 will be moved by the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm to the vicinity of Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-2, at the forward end of Harmony. It will be positioned between 10 inches (25 cm) and 2 feet (60 cm) from the adapter, whereupon spacewalkers will maneuver it into position, closing external connectors, internal switches and driven hook-motors. This will open the way for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, both of which will undertake their shakedown voyages in 2017 and restore America’s ability to launch its own astronauts from U.S. soil for the first time since the end of the shuttle era. In addition to the U.S. EVA, two spacewalks from the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) are scheduled for the summer. Both will originate from the Pirs module.
As detailed in an earlier AmericaSpace article, the departure of OA-5 and CRS-9 will offer little respite in terms of visiting vehicle traffic. Current planning outlines call for the CRS-9 Dragon to depart the station on 1 August, with CRS-10 targeted to launch at around the same time. Together with an internal pressurized cargo, CRS-10 will transport the Department of Defense (DoD) Space Test Program (STP)-H5, hosting the Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS) for 24-hour global lightning measurements. It will be robotically installed in a nadir-facing position on ExPRESS Logistics Carrier (ELC)-1 on the P-3 truss, remaining operational for about two years. Other CRS-10 payloads include the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment (SAGE)-III—equipped with Instrument Payload (IP) and Nadir-Viewing Platform (NVP)—which will be installed onto ELC-4 on the S-3 truss, thereby providing a continuous and unobstructed view of Earth’s atmospheric limb as it seeks to undertake long-term measurements of ozone, aerosols, water vapor and associated gases.
Dovetailed into the U.S. visiting vehicle manifest are two of Russia’s workhorse Progress resupply freighters, due to launch in early July and late October, as well as JAXA’s sixth H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-6). The respective launch sites of each of these spacecraft are testament to the “international” nature of the ISS Program: Orbital ATK Cygnuses will fly from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., whilst the SpaceX Dragons originate from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the planet, the Progresses will rise from the desolate Kazakh steppe of Baikonur and the HTV from the Tanegashima Space Centre, within the Osumi Islands of Japan’s Kagoshima Prefecture.
About 2.5 months into their mission, Ivanishin, Rubins and Onishi will bid farewell to Williams, Ovchinin and Skripochka, as the latter board Soyuz TMA-20M and undock from the space station on 7 September for their return to Earth. In doing so, Expedition 48 will come to and end and Expedition 49—under Ivanishin’s command—will commence. The crew will work at a reduced level of three personnel for about two weeks, before Soyuz MS-02 launches from Baikonur on 21 September, carrying Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Andrei Borisenko, together with NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough. Two U.S. EVAs are tentatively planned for the October timeframe, tasked with the Removal & Replacement (R&R) of batteries out on the station’s Integrated Truss Structure (ITS).
“Takuya and I trained in the NBL,” Rubins explained, referring to the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, near JSC. “We had a lot of training when we’re in our initial flow. After that, it starts to get more specific once we get mission-assigned. We’re trained for potential contingencies on-board space station, as well as any of these nominal tasks that might come up. It’s about a six-hour “run”, underwater.” Asked about the challenges of operating for such a lengthy period of time in a 300-pound (136 kg) Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) suit, Rubins compared it to performing two marathons.
And she’s normally used to doing one marathon at a time. “So yeah,” she added with a smile. “It’s a challenge!”
Wrapping up more than four months aboard the orbital outpost, Ivanishin, Rubins and Onishi will board Soyuz-MS on 30 October and return to Earth. Their touchdown will conclude an increment of approximately 131 days, which—if it runs as planned—will represent the ninth-shortest ISS expedition in history and the shortest increment aboard the station in almost four years. In completing her first mission, Rubins will automatically position herself in 13th place on the list of the world’s most seasoned female spacefarers. As for Onishi, he will become Japan’s 11th astronaut.
Yet for now, both Rubins and Onishi are eagerly awaiting their first flights into space. For Rubins, her background as a cancer and cell biologist has generated great excitement over the 250 experiments which will be performed during Expeditions 48 and 49. She described a “pretty hefty research component”, which includes life science experiments, DNA sequencing and examinations of the behavior of cells, as well as bone and muscle loss. More broadly, she is keenly aware that her role will change aboard the ISS—perhaps a scientist one day, a plumber the next—and that this required them to be “pretty detail-oriented”.
Ivanishin’s advice to his crew is to “keep their eyes open”, because he knows from experience that their four months in space will be over in the metaphorical blink of an eye. He is looking forward simply to entering the space station again, after a four-year absence, whilst Rubins anticipates looking at the Home Planet and photographing it from orbit and Onishi has plans to use Twitter and Google+ to share his experience. Asked to describe their crewmates, each was highly complimentary. Ivanishin was “very happy” with them both, stressing that Rubins had shown inventiveness building shelters during winter survival training and Onishi had turned into a “very reliable” flight engineer.
“I trust these two guys more than 100 percent,” said Onishi at one point, paying tribute to Ivanishin’s calmness under duress. Rubins agreed. “These,” she said, with a nod to her crewmates, “are the two guys that you want to be with you in your spacecraft.”
With thanks to AmericaSpace Photographer Michael Galindo for covering this event.
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