Under the deft command of cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky, the Soyuz TMA-06M spacecraft – bearing himself, fellow Russian Yevgeni Tarelkin and NASA astronaut Kevin Ford – has successfully arrived at the International Space Station. The trio docked at the ‘zenith’ (space-facing) Poisk module at 7:29 CDT this morning, two days after their launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Following standard checks of the integrity of seals between their vehicle and the multi-national outpost, the hatches were opened and Novitsky, Tarelkin and Ford were engulfed by bear hugs from their Expedition 33 crewmates Sunita Williams, Yuri Malenchenko and Aki Hoshide. The new arrival brings the station back up to its full crew strength of six (nicknamed ‘33-6’ in NASA parlance) for the first time in more than a month, and the coming weeks promise to be both hectic and dramatic, with a time-critical EVA planned for 1 November.
Soyuz TMA-06M had already been delayed by eight days from 15 October to the 23rd, due to an equipment failure during pre-flight tests. It became the first manned mission to rise from Baikonur’s Site 31/6 since Soyuz T-12, way back in July 1984, apparently due to Roscosmos’ desire to check new systems installed at the pad for future human flights. A major modernisation of the facilities at Site 1/5 (famously known as ‘Gagarin’s Start’) in 2014 is expected to lead to all manned missions in the near future transferring to Site 31/6. Early on Tuesday, the prime crew and their backups – Russian cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov and Aleksandr Misurkin, together with NASA’s Chris Cassidy – departed the Cosmonaut Hotel and were bussed to the launch pad. Whilst there, Vinogradov chatted and laughed with senior officials, whilst Cassidy snapped photographs and all three gazed in awe at the booster their comrades were about to ride into orbit.
As well as three men, Soyuz TMA-06M included another passenger: a small, blue-suited toy hippo, provided by Tarelkin’s daughters. They had offered it as an ‘indicator’ for the onset of weightlessness and orbital flight.
Less than an hour before the 5:51 am CDT launch, most personnel had been evacuated from the pad and at 5:25 am the service towers were retracted from the vehicle. With ten minutes remaining, the inertial guidance system was unlocked and the crew activated Soyuz TMA-06M’s flight recorders. Shortly thereafter, the launch ‘key’ was officially handed to the launch director. At T-5 minutes, Novitsky’s flight controls were activated. Launch occurred perfectly and on time, with the booster – girdled at its base by four tapering strap-on motors – delivering the three men perfectly into a preliminary orbit by 6:00 am…at which time the hippo provided by Tarelkin’s daughters drifted comically out of frame of the on-board television display.
After a little more than two days of independent flight, Novitsky guided his ship towards the International Space Station this morning, with images from NASA TV revealing a glorious, cloud-speckled Earth beneath. Like a bird with its wings spread wide, Soyuz TMA-06M drew ever closer to its quarry and finally achieved docking at 7:29 am CDT, a full six minutes ahead of schedule. Pressure equalisation between the two space vehicles followed and the hatches were officially opened at 10:08 am. The three new arrivals – their faces puffy and reddened as they begin the process of adaptation to the strange microgravity environment – seemed in jubilant spirits as they gathered inside the Zvezda module.With today’s successful docking, a busy few weeks lies ahead for the closing stage of Expedition 33. On Sunday, SpaceX’s first dedicated Dragon spacecraft under its $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA is expected to be unberthed from the Earth-facing (‘nadir’) port of the Harmony node, preparatory for its return home. It will return over 1,670 pounds of cargo, including frozen samples from station experiments, back to Earth and is scheduled to splashdown in the waters of the Pacific, off the coast of southern California.
Next Thursday, Sunita Williams and Aki Hoshide will venture outside the Quest airlock for the third EVA of their expedition; an unplanned spacewalk to handle an ammonia coolant leak from 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 top-up by the STS-134 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 for the US Operating Segment (USOS) side of the station (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 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 Novitsky, Tarelkin and Ford, the two crews will work together for around three weeks, before Williams, Malenchenko and Hoshide return home, shortly before Thanksgiving. This will kick off the first part of Expedition 34, under Ford’s command. 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 SpaceX’s CRS-2 Dragon craft. 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.
However, it now appears that the long-awaited arrival of Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus demo will not occur before March or April of next year, meaning that Ford’s crew will probably miss it. Orbital received a $1.9 billion contract from NASA in December 2008 to stage its own series of cargo-delivery flights, but ongoing problems with the preparation and certification of its Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Virginia, have conspired to postpone the maiden test launch of its Antares rocket. This vehicle is presently scheduled to fly later this year and whose first two stages were recently rolled out to MARS’ Launch Complex 0A. A static firing of the twin AJ-26 engines on Antares’ first stage is expected in the near future.