Three new crewmembers are slated to rocket toward the International Space Station (ISS) late Wednesday, boosting the outpost’s Expedition 37 population to its full six-member strength. Soyuz TMA-10M will ferry Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky and NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:58 p.m. EDT Wednesday (2:58 a.m. Kazakh time Thursday). Upon achieving orbit, the three crew members will execute a four-orbit, six-hour “fast rendezvous” profile to achieve a docking at the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module at about 10:47 p.m. EDT Wednesday (8:47 a.m. Kazakh time Thursday). Current plans call for the hatch opening to take place at about 12:25 a.m. EDT (10:25 a.m. Kazakh time) Thursday.
The new arrivals will be greeted by Expedition 37 Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Russia and Flight Engineers Karen Nyberg of NASA and Italy’s Luca Parmitano. After checking the integrity of seals and connections between their craft, the hatches will open and the two halves of Expedition 37 will unite in orbit for the first time. Yurchikhin, Nyberg, and Parmitano were launched on 28 May and spent the first half of their mission as part of Pavel Vinogradov’s Expedition 36. Upon the safe return to Earth of Vinogradov, Aleksandr Misurkin, and Chris Cassidy on 11 September, Yurchikhin’s team formed the “core” of the new Expedition 37, which Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins will round out.
It has already been a truly “international” year aboard the ISS. In March, Chris Hadfield became the first Canadian to command the multi-national outpost, whilst in July, Luca Parmitano became the first Italian spacewalker. In addition, the arrival of Soyuz TMA-09M on 28 May brought Karen Nyberg as one of only two women—the other being China’s Wang Yaping aboard Shenzhou-10—to be in orbit on the 50th anniversary of Valentina Tereshkova’s flight. Yet 2013 has also brought troubles to the ISS. In early May, astronauts Chris Cassidy and Tom Marshburn perform an unscheduled EVA to tend to an ammonia leak from the station’s P-6 truss. Two months later, on 16 July, another EVA was curtailed due to water intrusion into Luca Parmitano’s helmet.
Unpiloted visitors have shuttled backwards and forwards with cargo, equipment, and supplies for the crews. Russia’s venerable Progress, Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), and Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) “Kounotori” have maintained a vigorous campaign of support throughout the summer months, and on 18 September Orbital Sciences Corp. triumphantly launched its first Cygnus cargo ship on the long-awaited Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Demonstration Mission. Cygnus’ capture and berthing at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the station’s Harmony node was planned for early Sunday, 22 September, but was postponed until Tuesday, 24 September, due to a software glitch with its Global Positioning System (GPS) hardware. Yesterday (Monday), NASA and Orbital jointly announced their intention to delay the berthing until Saturday, 28 September, considering it more prudent to wait until after the Soyuz TMA-10M crew’s arrival.
Cygnus completed three of its key demonstration objectives during its first two days on-orbit. It showcased its “Position and Control” capability to orient itself in space, it deactivated its thrusters and operated in “free drift,” and it performed a simulated abort maneuver. By midday EDT Saturday, it was about 250 miles “behind” the ISS, tracking a rendezvous the following morning. However, at 1:30 a.m. EDT Sunday, Orbital Sciences announced that the capture and berthing had met with delay. “Cygnus … established direct data contact with the International Space Station and found that some of the data received had values that it did not expect, causing Cygnus to reject the data,” Orbital reported. “This mandated an interruption of the approach sequence. Orbital has subsequently found the causes of this discrepancy and is developing a software fix. The minimum turnaround time to resume the approach to the ISS following an interruption such as this is approximately 48 hours due to orbital mechanics of the approach trajectory.” The subsequent delay until Saturday means that 10 days will have elapsed between Cygnus’ launch and its berthing at the ISS.
Consequently, one of the first tasks for the new Soyuz TMA-10M crew upon their arrival will be to participate in the unloading of more than 1,300 pounds of supplies from Cygnus. The cargo ship is expected to remain with the station for about a month, with unberthing and separation presently scheduled for 22 October, after which Cygnus will burn up in the atmosphere. If all goes well, Orbital intends to launch its first “dedicated” Cygnus mission (designated “ORB-1″) under the $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA on about 8 December. Working on this schedule, it has been reported that the ORB-1 Cygnus will depart the ISS on 10 January 2014, after which SpaceX’s CRS-3 Dragon will fly from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., in mid-January. This craft will occupy Cygnus’ former spot at the Harmony nadir port and is expected to remain attached to the station for a month. Unlike Cygnus, however, Dragon has the capacity to survive atmospheric re-entry and return to an ocean splashdown. Two Progress cargo vessels from Russia are also expected to deliver supplies and equipment to the space station in November and February.
For Oleg Kotov, this mission will be his third. The 48-year-old, Ukraine-born military physician has spent a cumulative 360 days in orbit during two ISS expeditions in April-October 2007 and December 2009-June 2010. Although the changes to the station between his first and second flights were profound—with the addition of the Harmony, Columbus, Kibo, Tranquility, and Cupola modules—he admitted in his pre-launch NASA interview that he does not expect to see many changes on this third mission. “The station has not changed much since my last flight,” Kotov said. “A couple of small modules have been added. It will be interesting to see them, to explore them, but I am looking forward to seeing the station again to see how the life organization has changed. Every crew brings something new to the station, to its life—their own style—and it stays there. It’s like a growing organism.”
Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins’ early weeks aboard the ISS will be somewhat different from most, for they will be subject to an uncommon “direct handover” of crew members in early November. Soyuz TMA-11M is scheduled to launch on 7 November with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, and Japan’s Koichi Wakata, which will make Fyodor Yurchikhin the first ISS Commander to lead an expedition crew of nine members. It will mark the first occasion since the end of the shuttle era back in July 2011 that the station’s population has soared beyond six people.
“We have not had a direct handover for a pretty long period of time,” Kotov explained in his pre-launch NASA interview, “so nine people will be working on-board the station at the same time. It requires a lot of co-ordination by the commander of the crew. We need to ensure the safety of the crew and of the station during docking, re-docking and during spacewalks. Imagine a situation when a lot of your relatives arrive at your house. Somebody is unpacking. Somebody is just arriving. Somebody is leaving. Somebody is in the back yard planting something. After this work, we will need a day or two to relax and to understand what happened!”
Normally, ISS crews follow “indirect” handover protocols, whereby a given crew departs the station, reducing the population to three, before a new crew arrives and restores it back up to six. The reason for the direct handover is tied to the fact that Russia plans an EVA by Kotov and Ryazansky on 9 November, as detailed by NASASpaceflight.com, whose primary objective is the installation of the UrtheCast high-resolution camera onto Zvezda. However, its most publicly visible objective will involve the spacewalkers carrying an Olympic torch as part of preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympics, which begin in February 2014. “The Olympic torch will be traveling all over Russia,” explained Ryazansky. “They will also take it to the bottom of the deepest lake on Earth, Lake Baikal.” The torch will launch with the Soyuz TMA-11M crew on 7 November and will then be returned to Earth with Yurchikhin, Nyberg, and Parmitano aboard Soyuz TMA-09M on 11 November.
“The idea to take the Olympic torch to space and take it outer space during the spacewalk was an idea voiced by Roscosmos,” said Kotov. “We will take a picture of it with the space station in the background, with the Earth in the background, and we will try to make sure that we see Russia and maybe Sochi, where the Olympic Games will take place. We want them to be in the background.” For Ryazansky, it will be his first EVA and to photograph the Olympic torch with Russia itself forming the backdrop promises to be highly symbolic. He was only 6 years old when his homeland last held the Summer Games, back in 1980. Thirty-four years later, Sochi—on the Black Sea coastline of Russia’s Krasnodar Krai—will host the Winter Games. “The most interesting part,” said the 38-year-old biochemist, who participated in the 15-day first stage and 105-day second stage of the Mars-500 isolation experiment in 2007-2009, “is that our relatives will be participating in this relay as well. My wife and Oleg Kotov’s daughter on Earth will be participating in the relay.”
In readiness for the temporary presence of three Soyuz craft at the ISS, it is expected that Yurchikhin, Nyberg, and Parmitano will undock their Soyuz TMA-09M craft from the nadir-facing Rassvet module on or around 1 November and redock to the end of the Zvezda module. This latter port will have been vacated by Europe’s ATV-4 “Albert Einstein” cargo craft a few days earlier on 28 October. This will allow Soyuz TMA-11M to dock at Rassvet, after a four-orbit, six-hour “fast rendezvous” on 7 November, whilst Soyuz TMA-10M remains at the zenith-facing Poisk module. This will also mean that Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins will become part of the first ISS crew to remain at full six-person strength throughout its entire expedition.
And that expedition is shaping up to be an exciting one, as Kotov prepares to lead the space station into spring 2014. With the departure of Yurchikhin, Nyberg, and Parmitano on 11 November, Kotov will command “Expedition 38,” with Ryazansky, Hopkins, Tyurin, Mastracchio, and Wakata as Flight Engineers. On 20 November, the ISS will celebrate 15 years since the launch of its first segment, Russia’s Zarya module. “It’s truly incredible,” said Mike Hopkins in his NASA interview, “when you think about when Zarya launched 15 years ago and then to where it is now, the size of a five-bedroom house. It is a testament to the work of people from all the participating countries, all the crews, all the flights from shuttles to Soyuz to resupply vehicles that have gone on before it.” With spacewalks from the U.S. Segment currently on hold, pending the resolution of the issues which curtailed EVA-23 on 16 July, the Russian Segment is expected to be busy with spacewalks over the next few months. In the aftermath of Kotov and Ryazansky’s “Olympic Torch” EVA on 9 November, the duo are expected to venture outside on two more occasions in December and February to begin steps to outfit the Russian Segment for the arrival of the long-delayed Nauka (“Science”) Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module (MLM).
Original plans called for the MLM to arrive in December 2013, although that date has now slipped and its launch from Baikonur is not anticipated until at least late April 2014—after Kotov and his crew have returned home. “It is very unfortunate,” Kotov acquiesced, “because this module will expand the technical capabilities of the station and of the Russian Segment in particular. We will have new scientific hardware there to monitor the Earth. We will have special ovens inside this module where new alloys and new materials will be produced. It will also improve the life-support system of the station. We will have a new water recovery system, an oxygen generation system, one Russian [toilet] will be added, and one of the crew quarters will be moved there. We have an airlock there from which materials will be delivered to the outside of the station. From the crew’s standpoint, we will have a big window there and we will be able to take beautiful photographs of Earth.”
With or without the MLM, Kotov said that the work of Expedition 38 will be overwhelmingly scientific in nature, as the ISS advances from its post-assembly phase to one of full utilization. Still, the difficulty of astronauts and cosmonauts in surviving for months at a time in a hazardous and isolated environment remains substantial. “We need to receive some information from Earth,” he told the NASA interviewer. “Social networks can help. Talking to our friends can help. After my second flight, I concluded that the most important thing is to be loaded, snowed under with work. The worst for me was when I had some spare time. When people on Earth … think that they are doing a good thing by giving us some days off, when on Earth you can simply visit your friends … for us it’s like a day off in the office. It is really difficult.”
Although he has never flown into space before, Sergei Ryazansky can at least draw on the lengthy experience he gained from the Mars-500 isolation experiment. “We were simulating a Mars mission on Earth,” he explained, “but it was more of a psychological experiment for us, because on board the station we can call … our friends or our families at any moment of time. During that experiment, we could receive one letter from our family, once a week, so we received very little news on board the station. There were six people during this experiment. They were great guys, but in a couple of months, when you see the same faces, smell the same odors, we could see some changes in how we approached our work. I was the commander, so I had to decide as commander how to keep a wonderful atmosphere and a good mood and yet complete the experiment and keep the crew together.”
For Ryazansky and Hopkins, both first-time fliers on Soyuz TMA-10M, it will be an exciting time and a first taste of the new and strange microgravity environment. With science intended to be a major focus, Hopkins was overjoyed that physical exercise and conditioning takes central stage, with around 2.5 hours of daily workout scheduled. “Exercise has always been a huge part of my life,” said the 44-year-old U.S. Air Force colonel, who becomes the first member of NASA’s 2009 astronaut intake to draw a flight assignment. “I am trying to gear up a little bit with the Train Like An Astronaut program to highlight that. It is a program that tries to motivate kids to get out and exercise, because healthy kids are going to turn into healthy adults. Through avenues like Facebook, we are going to share some of the videos of my workouts on station, and we put out there some of our videos and also the types of workout that I am doing and maybe some motivational clips.”
Barring any unforeseen problems, Soyuz TMA-10M will bring Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins back to Earth on 12 March 2014, concluding a mission of 168 days in orbit. Their departure will herald the beginning of Expedition 39, which will make history when Wakata becomes the first Japanese astronaut to take command of the ISS. Other space travelers expected to fly to the outpost in 2014 include Germany’s Alexander Gerst in May and Italy’s first female astronaut, Sam Cristoforetti, in December. And with 2015 scheduled to see year-long crewmen Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko launching in March, followed by Japan’s Kimiya Yui in May, Denmark’s Andreas Mogensen and “space tourist” Sarah Brightman in September, and Britain’s Tim Peake in November, it appears that the “International” Space Station is truly living up to its billing and laying the groundwork for our species’ explorations beyond Earth orbit in the years ahead.
Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins arrived at Baikonur in the desolate steppe of Kazakhstan on 13 September, together with their backup crew of Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev and NASA astronaut Steve Swanson. Yesterday morning (Monday, 23 September), the giant Soyuz booster was rolled horizontally from its assembly building and raised to a vertical position on the launch pad. All three Soyuz TMA-10M crewmen are ready to go Wednesday. And none of them hope that this will be their last flight. Before launch, all were asked if they would like to follow in the footsteps of Kelly and Kornienko and attempt a year-long mission.
The replies were predictably obvious.
Kotov: “Of course.”
Hopkins: “I would certainly relish the opportunities to fly in space again … but let us get through my first mission first!”