One Sunday afternoon, in the none too distant future, Kevin Ford hopes to spend a few hours floating inside the International Space Station’s cupola, watching the ever-changing orb of Earth and its iridescence of life. It is one of the things the veteran astronaut is most excited about in his five-month mission to the multi-national outpost – due to launch at 5:51 am CDT on Tuesday – which will involve around 200 scientific experiments and visits from several dedicated cargo craft, including SpaceX’s second Dragon and Orbital Sciences’ first Cygnus under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. In anticipation of a packed mission, Ford and his crew designed their mission patch for Expedition 34 in the shape of a generic resupply vehicle, with a possible future Beyond Earth Orbit lander superimposed atop it. In Ford’s own words, this is an exciting time for the space programme. Humans have continuously occupied the station for more than a decade and in the first few weeks of his mission, plans will be announced for the first year-long expedition in 2015.
Ford’s patch proudly declares that it is devoted to work “Off the Earth…For the Earth”, an indicator of the sensitivity of himself and his men to the enormous responsibility which has been placed upon their shoulders. He will rise from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan tomorrow, shoulder to shoulder with rookie cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeni Tarelkin, and in so doing will kick off the final part of the station’s Expedition 33. At 7:35 am CDT on Thursday, Novitsky will guide the Soyuz TMA-06M spacecraft in for a docking at the space-facing (‘zenith’) Poisk module, thus restoring the Expedition 33 crew to its full, six-person strength. “I was a test pilot before coming to NASA,” Ford explained in an interview, earlier in 2012, “and it was fantastic to get to experience the Space Shuttle, but I’m really looking forward to seeing the way a Soyuz operates. It’s a whole different way to skin the cat, to get you to space station and get you home.”
At present, the station houses three residents: Commander Sunita Williams and Flight Engineers Yuri Malenchenko and Aki Hoshide, who have been aboard since July. For the first few weeks of their mission, the new arrivals will serve as Flight Engineers, but upon the departure of Williams’ crew a traditional ceremony will see Ford take command and herald the official start of Expedition 34. “I don’t think we’ll change station operations one little bit when Suni leaves,” he said. “My crewmates could be commanders themselves. They’re all self-starters and very motivated and excellent, technically. I don’t really have a big job to do in terms of running the shop. My primary goal would just be to monitor the crew, make sure everybody’s happy with the tasks that they have, things run smoothly with the ground and make things run smoothly on-board.”
Particularly exciting to Ford is the greater emphasis upon science now that the station has virtually reached completion and Expedition 34 has a full plate of around 200 experiments to follow. These involve more than 400 worldwide investigators and cover human research, biological and physical sciences, technology, Earth observation and education. Japan’s Aquatic Habitat arrived aboard the most recent H-II Transfer Vehicle, Kounotori-3, in late July and will encompasses studies of bone and muscle atrophy of Medaka fish in a freshwater aquarium. The fish “happen to have a bone similar to mammals,” said Ford, “the way their bone is created and lost, and we’ll be looking at these fish in the microgravity environment and it’ll be really great information for osteoporosis research.”
Elsewhere, the Canadian Space Agency has supplied a miniature flow cytometer, known as ‘Microflow1’, for cell analysis with potential applications in the diagnosis of health problems, whilst NASA’s Advanced Colloids Experiment will employ a light microscope to examine the crystallisation and phase separation of colloidal particles. Possible benefits of this research includes extending the shelf-life of products used on Earth and aboard long-duration space missions. The European Space Agency has supplied a battery of investigations looking at circadian rhythms – the human body’s 24-hour light-dark cycle – to understand and address the crew’s physical and emotional wellbeing.
With a PhD in aerospace engineering, in addition to his test-piloting credentials, Ford will participate fully in the scientific work. “I’ve had probably tens of hours in MRI machines and characterising my musculoskeletal system – bone structure, spacing between vertebrae – and those kinds of things,” he said. “Then we’ll look at those again when we come back.” As part of the European experiment, he will will wear a holter monitor to measure his heart rhythms and an Actiwatch to record his levels of activity and investigate the impact of the new environment upon his circadian routine.
Ford’s assertion that this is a “big transition for NASA” is borne out by another experiment, the International Space Station Test Bed for Analog Research (I-STAR) Earth Departure Communications Delay Study (COMM Delay), which will study the lengthy communication delays likely to be encountered during future human voyages to Mars or elsewhere, beyond Earth orbit. Researchers are keen to understand impacts upon crew behaviour and performance, including the critical effects of the communication delays upon time-critical mission events. A full voice communications delay test is presently planned for Expedition 36 in the summer of 2013.
That transition has been nowhere more apparent than last year’s retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet and the current dependency of the agency upon the Russian Soyuz as the primary transport vehicle for its astronauts. Commercial partners SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Boeing are presently working on the end-to-end design and systems testing of their respective DragonRider, DreamChaser and CST-100 crew vehicles, but the first piloted flights are not anticipated until at least the end of 2015.
And 2015 is shaping up to be a truly significant year.
Only two weeks ago, English soprano Sarah Brightman – famed for her roles in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats and Phantom of the Opera, as well as a highly successful career as a solo artist – announced her intent to participate in a flight to the International Space Station in 2015. In so doing, she will become the station’s first commercial ‘tourist’ since Canadian Cirque du Soleil billionaire Guy Laliberté returned to Earth in October 2009. Russia halted its tourism programme the following year, due to the increase in station crew size from three to six, and the need to fill all Soyuz seats with expedition members, but a possible increase from four to five launches per year in 2013 was expected to herald a restoration of the capability.
At the present time, this ‘fifth Soyuz’ option has not materialised and it seems that Russia’s preference is to extend the duration of an expedition from six months to a full year. This would free up as many as two Soyuz seats, with Brightman and perhaps another tourist flying to the station, alongside a Russian cosmonaut, in October 2015. Brightman, who accepted a UNESCO nomination as Artist for Peace earlier this year, will participate in a world tour in 2013 in support of her new album, ‘Dreamchaser’ – an apt title, in view of the hoped destination of the singer.
As for the year-long expedition itself, a start date of “spring 2015” – most likely sometime in March – was recently announced by NASA, with the agency declaring that it would enable a clearer understanding of the physiological and other changes inherent in the human body on longer space missions. “We have gained new knowledge about the effects of spaceflight on the human body from the scientific research conducted on the space station and it is the perfect time to test a one-year expedition aboard the orbital laboratory,” said NASA ISS Program Scientist Julie Robinson. “What we will gain from this expedition will influence the way we structure our human research plans in the future.”
The names of the US astronaut and Russian cosmonaut destined to participate in the year-long expedition are expected to be formally revealed in around three weeks’ time, with Peggy Whitson – who stepped down as chief of the astronaut office in July – widely tipped for the NASA seat. However, in recent days, unverified speculation has abounded that a “medical issue”, perhaps related to cumulative radiation exposure across Whitson’s two previous long-duration missions, might rule her out of the flight. Other possible candidates for the flight include physician-astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Mike Barratt. Lindgren is presently training for launch in March 2015 on Expedition 43/44, although his current status as a ‘rookie’ astronaut may raise eyebrows for the Russians, who are believed to have insisted that both year-long crew members should be flight-experienced. Barratt, who flew a 199-day mission to the station in March-October 2009, presently manages the Human Research Program at the Johnson Space Center. As for the Russian crew member, one name which has garnered much speculation in recent weeks has been veteran cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka.
Undoubtedly, the coming weeks will prove exceptionally exciting, as the station moves from the post-Shuttle era into one which can at last be termed the pre-BEO era, for much of NASA’s research seems to be heading in the direction of preparing for humanity’s first exploratory voyages beyond Earth orbit in more than five decades. Cynics have argued that Russia’s support for the year-long expedition has little to do with future exploration, or even human life science, but is purely engineered to rake in profit from jumpstarting its Soyuz tourism programme. Still, the fact remains that if Sarah Brightman flies in 2015 hers will be added to the other influential voices which have spoken so eloquently about space in recent years. She will become the first professional singer to enter space and arguably the first instantly recognisable celebrity to do so. Significantly, her support for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education is expected to pay enormous dividends.
Almost three years remain to be crossed before the flight occurs, and during that time much can change to alter its progress. Certainly, 2012 has turned into an interesting year in terms of EVAs, with one originally planned – and performed – by Sunita Williams and Aki Hoshide in late August, quickly followed by a second and current expectations that as many as two more will occur in early November. Both will be conducted by Williams and Hoshide, owing to their currency in preparedness and recent EVA expertise. The need for these additional EVAs centres on an ammonia coolant leak in one of the power channels of the station’s port-side P-6 solar array.
Launched in November 2000 with 52 pounds of ammonia, the P-6 system has exhibited a leak of around 1.5 pounds per year since December 2006, prompting a topping-up by the STS-134 EVA crew in May of last year. Projections at the time suggested that the system would not need further attention until 2015, but the leak has returned and accelerated from its previous rate to around 5.2 pounds per year. With this alarming trend, P-6’s critical 2B power channel – which carries significant electrical loads across the station – could be rendered out of service before the end of this year. The next EVA crew, Expedition 34/35 astronauts Chris Hadfield and Tom Marshburn, are not expected to arrive until 21 December and NASA has expressed preference to attend to the problem with a team already established in orbit and with recent spacewalking experience.
Present plans call for Williams and Hoshide to venture outside the station’s Quest airlock at 7:15 am CDT on 1 November, for an EVA which should last for six and a half hours. They will probably not refill the ammonia supply, because analysis has indicated that the leak seems to originate from the P-6’s photovoltaic radiator, but will instead extend one of its retracted Early External Thermal Control System (EETCS) radiators. They will connect jumper cables to bypass the leaking photovoltaic radiator and activate the EETCS in its place. A spare photovoltaic radiator is located on the ExPrESS Logistics Carrier (ELC-4), launched in February 2011, although that is the only spare device at the station and it is NASA’s desire to seek an alternative workaround option.
Williams, Hoshide and Expedition 33 crewmate Yuri Malenchenko’s return to Earth has already been postponed from 12 November until the 19th – not due to the EVA demands, but to decrease the amount of time at three-person capability before the arrival of Hadfield, Marshburn and cosmonaut Roman Romanenko in late December – and the scope for another spacewalk is becoming increasingly likely to replace a Sequential Shunt Unit. A date for this EVA has not been announced, although Williams and Hoshide have participated in procedural reviews during the course of the last week. According to NASA’s ISS Status Report of 17 October, the pair configured tools, hardware and bags, reviewed training materials on dealing with fluid quick disconnect hardware carrying toxic ammonia and participated in an audio teleconference with ground-based EVA specialists.
With the arrival of Ford, Novitsky and Tarelkin, the two crews will work together for around three weeks, before Williams, Malenchenko and Hoshide return home, shortly before Thanksgiving. The next team of Hadfield, Marshburn and Romanenko are due to launch on 19 December and will dock at the station two days later. This will bring Expedition 34 to its full six-man strength – “which sometimes we call ‘34-6’,” said Ford, “the new lingo” – and prime the outpost for the arrival of the second SpaceX Dragon cargo craft under its $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. This mission is presently scheduled for launch in January 2013, although the engine-out experienced on the recent CRS-1 ascent may force this target date to the right. Also planned for around the same time is the first demo flight of Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus vehicle, preparatory to a series of voyages under its own $1.9 billion CRS contract. The flight of Cygnus, however, is dependent upon a satisfactory maiden launch of Orbital’s Antares booster, later this year. Ford has trained extensively to capture and berth the craft at the station’s Harmony node, using the Canadarm2 robotic arm.
With Ford, Novitsky and Tarelkin’s Soyuz TMA-06M spacecraft and its booster already ‘hard-down’ on the Baikonur launch pad, only hours now remain before their launch on Tuesday. They are scheduled to remain in orbit until mid-March 2013, whereupon they will be replaced by another crew, which includes Pavel Vinogradov – due to become the oldest Russian cosmonaut ever to enter orbit, aged 59 – and which may feature the first same-day docking of a manned craft at the International Space Station. At present, crews spend two days in transit to the outpost, but the successful test of a six-hour ‘fast rendezvous’ profile by the unmanned Progress 48P last August raised optimism that this procedure could soon be extended to manned missions.