Three new arrivals are scheduled to board the International Space Station (ISS) early Thursday, when Soyuz TMA-11M carries Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, and Japan’s Koichi Wakata aloft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launching at 9:14 a.m. local time on 7 November (11:14 p.m. EST on 6 November), the crew will pursue a six-hour rendezvous profile with the orbital outpost, docking at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module. They will join incumbent Expedition 37 crew members Fyodor Yurchikhin, Karen Nyberg, Luca Parmitano, Oleg Kotov, Sergei Ryazansky, and Mike Hopkins, and the ISS population will temporarily jump to nine members for the first time since the end of the shuttle era.
With final closeout activities of their Soyuz spacecraft and its payload shroud—emblazoned with the colorful livery of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, due to begin in February—currently underway, and rollout to the launch pad scheduled to occur tomorrow (Wednesday), the prime and backup crews for the mission have been exercising and reviewing their flight plans. Over the weekend, Mastracchio tweeted a photograph of himself and his backup, fellow NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, jogging at Baikonur. The Soyuz TMA-11M launch was originally planned for 25 November, but was brought forward by three weeks to 6/7 November to allow for an Olympic torch to be ceremoniously flown to the ISS, taken outside on a symbolic spacewalk on 9 November, and returned to Earth aboard the outgoing Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft on 10 November.
As part of preparations for the arrival of a third Soyuz spacecraft at the station—which currently plays home to Soyuz TMA-09M, launched in May, and Soyuz TMA-10M, launched in September—a relocation of vehicles was performed Friday, 1 November. Yurchikhin, Nyberg, and Parmitano boarded their TMA-09M craft and undocked it from Rassvet, then performed a 21-minute “flyaround” to redock with the aft port of the Zvezda module. Meanwhile, Soyuz TMA-10M remains docked to the space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module. The relocation thus opens up Rassvet for the arrival of Tyurin, Mastracchio, and Wakata. ISS Program managers prefer to utilize the nadir Rassvet and zenith Poisk modules for Soyuz crewed vehicles, in order that the Zvezda aft port (which lies on the station’s longitudinal axis) can be occupied by Progress or Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo ships for reboost purposes. Since Soyuz TMA-09M is scheduled to depart the ISS on 10 November, and the next Progress is not due to launch until 25 November, its brief presence at the Zvezda aft port does not pose any visiting vehicle traffic complications.
Several hours before Wednesday’s liftoff, Tyurin, Mastracchio, and Wakata will be helped into their Sokol launch and entry suits at Baikonur. They will then be transported by bus to the launch pad and ensconced into their specially contoured seats aboard the Soyuz TMA-11M descent module. With Tyurin in the center seat, flanked by Mastracchio to his left and Wakata to his right, the three men will verify the integrity of their suits and proceed through a lengthy series of checks. An hour before liftoff, the rocket—a direct descendent of the R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile, developed under the auspices of Chief Designer Sergei Korolev in the 1950s—will be transferred to its internal guidance system and technicians will begin to evacuate the pad area.
With 40 minutes to go, the servicing tower will be retracted, exposing the rocket and the colorful, Olympic-themed payload shroud in all its grandeur. Fueling with refined rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen will conclude and transition to a topping-off mode, thereby ensuring that cryogenic boil-off is rapidly replenished until shortly before launch time. This will ensure that the liquid oxygen tanks are maintained at Flight Ready levels, ahead of the ignition of the rocket’s first stage engines. In the final quarter-hour, the Launch Abort System (LAS) will be armed and switched to Automatic Mode and the crew will be instructed to close their space suit visors. Internal avionics will be activated and on-board flight recorders will be spooled-up to monitor the vehicle’s myriad systems.
Inside the control bunker, the “launch key” will be inserted at T-5 minutes, effectively enabling the ordnance which will support Soyuz TMA-11M’s ascent, and the final phase of the countdown will see the completion of nitrogen purging, the pressurization of tankage, and the topping-off of cryogenics. At T-10 seconds, the turbopumps on the central core and the four tapering strap-on boosters will awaken and the engines will be confirmed at full power, producing a retraction of the fueling tower and a mid-morning liftoff. This will be the first Soyuz mission since October 2012 not to launch in the hours of darkness.
A minute into the flight, the rocket will be traveling in excess of 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h), and at T+118 seconds the four tapering boosters will be jettisoned, leaving the core alone to complete the climb into low-Earth orbit. Its single RD-108 engine will have accelerated Soyuz TMA-11M to more than 3,350 mph (5,390 km/h) by the two-minute point, and soon afterward the escape tower and payload shroud will be jettisoned. Four minutes and 58 seconds after leaving Baikonur, the core stage will separate at an altitude of 105.6 statute miles (170 km) and the third and final stage will ignite to boost Tyurin, Mastracchio, and Wakata to a velocity of more than 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h). By the time that the third stage is jettisoned, nine minutes into the flight, the crew will be in space and will begin the process of deploying their ship’s antennas and solar arrays.
Soyuz TMA-11M’s launch and early mission operations will be broadcast live on the dual LED displays of the large Toshiba Vision screen in New York’s Times Square. “The space station serves as a unique laboratory for researchers around the world, home to astronauts from multiple countries, and it was built with international co-operation,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, “so it’s fitting to show the launch of the next crew in the most cosmopolitan city in the United States.” Broadcasting NASA Television coverage from Baikonur, the screen will cover the event from 10:15 p.m. EST Wednesday—about an hour ahead of launch—until 11:45 p.m. EST, by which time Tyurin, Mastracchio, and Wakata will have achieved orbit.
Two computer-guided “burns” of Soyuz TMA-11M’s maneuvering thrusters will take place within the first 90-minute orbit of Earth, with several others to follow over the next five hours. According to Spaceflight101, docking with the ISS is scheduled for 3:31 p.m. Baikonur time (5:31 a.m. EST) Thursday, about six hours and 17 minutes after launch. In the aftermath of capture, a complex series of pressure and other checks will be conducted to verify the integrity of the seal between the two space vehicles. Hatch opening is anticipated a little over 90 minutes later, and Tyurin, Mastracchio, and Wakata will undoubtedly be engulfed in hugs and smiles from the incumbent Expedition 37 crew.
Under normal circumstances, six-person ISS crews follow an “indirect” rotation protocol, whereby a given three-member subset departs the station, temporarily reducing the population to three, after which another crew arrives a couple of weeks later to restore it back up to six people. The addition of the Olympic torch task obliged ISS Program managers to look at conducting their first direct rotation since October 2009 and this poses difficulties, both in terms of the station’s life-support capabilities and day-to-day practicalities. “It will be a very interesting period of time on-orbit,” Oleg Kotov told a NASA interviewer before his launch on 25 September. “We have not had a direct handover for a pretty long period of time, 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. It is like … 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 backyard planting something. After this work we will need a day or two to relax and to understand what happened.”
There will be little time for the new arrivals to get acclimatized, for at 9:30 a.m. EST Saturday, 9 November, Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky are scheduled to venture out of the Pirs airlock into the vacuum of space for an ambitious and highly symbolic spacewalk. The most publicly visible objective of EVA-36—the 36th spacewalk to be performed from the station’s Russian Segment—is to carry a modified version of the chrome-and-red Sochi Olympic torch into the airless void. Ceremonially lit in Olympia, Greece, on 29 September, its Russian relay began on 7 October in Moscow’s Red Square and will travel through 2,900 towns and villages, ahead of its arrival at the Black Sea coastal city of Sochi for the official start of the Games on 7 February 2014. Kotov’s daughter and Ryazansky’s wife are participating in the Olympic relay on the ground. For its “space” leg of its relay, the torch looks similar to those used on the ground, albeit with several modifications. “An open flame in space would be dangerous,” explained Spaceflight101, adding that “the torch will feature a simulated flame. Another modification made on the flight model and its backup that is already aboard the station is the addition of a safety tether.”
Grappling the modified torch in their gloved hands, Kotov and Ryazansky plan to take a number of photographs, possibly with Sochi as the backdrop. Several other exterior maintenance tasks are also planned. Originally, much of the work of Russian spacewalkers over the next few months involved communications, data, and Ethernet cable installation and reconfiguration in support of the launch of Russia’s long-delayed Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module (MLM)—originally planned for December 2013, then April and September 2014—but its recent postponement until no earlier than September 2015 has forced changes to be implemented. Planning remains in flux, but it appears at present that Kotov and Ryazansky’s EVA on 9 November may be one of only two spacewalks scheduled for the ISS for at least the next six months. Another excursion, EVA-37, also by Kotov and Ryazansky, is provisionally scheduled for 16 December.
Although Kotov has performed three EVAs during his two previous ISS missions in 2007 and 2009-2010, it will be Ryazansky’s first chance to savor the experience of spacewalking. “The first task is to take the Olympic torch to space,” he explained to a NASA interviewer before his launch with Kotov and Mike Hopkins in September. “The second task is to remove and replace a couple of antennas and to install some antennas in a different place. During EVA-37, we are planning to install new hardware called a chamber of high resolution, which later we will send back to Earth. We need to prepare the work stations for that by de-installing a couple of things, installing some new hardware and then we will be able to install two telescopes and point them to Earth.”
With the ceremonial brandishing of the Olympic torch on 9 November, Kotov and Ryazansky will bring the symbol of the Games back inside the ISS, and the process of packing it aboard the Soyuz TMA-09M descent module for its return to Earth will commence almost immediately. Expedition 37 Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin will relinquish command of the station and Kotov will formally take over his duties, marking the start of Expedition 38. Yurchikhin, Karen Nyberg, and Luca Parmitano—who have been aboard the space station since late May—are slated to board Soyuz TMA-09M and undock from the Zvezda module at 6:26 p.m. EST Sunday, 10 November. Three hours later, following a fiery plunge through the atmosphere, they will touch down on the desolate steppe of Kazakhstan, concluding 166 days in orbit.
With a background in the military and aerospace medicine, Kotov has made no secret of the fact that he intends to share his experiences and devote as much time to educational outreach as possible during his expedition. “I will have more responsibility,” he admitted of his new role as skipper of the ISS until mid-March 2014. “The only difference here is that you are more responsible for the crew and for the station, but you are performing the rest of the work, so you have no privileges here. You do not have special food or special drinks. I think the commander has to be one step ahead of the crew and undertake the most difficult and maybe the most responsible assignments of the crew.”
Looking ahead to the manifest for Expedition 38, the first visiting vehicle is Progress M-21M, an unmanned supply craft which is scheduled to launch from Baikonur on 25 November. Unlike several other Progress vehicles, which have followed a six-hour rendezvous profile, this mission is expected to spend four days in transit to the station, completing a series of tests of its Kurs-NA rendezvous hardware. Its engines will provide a reboost of the ISS orbit in the first week of December, after which all eyes will turn to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., where Orbital Sciences Corp. plans to launch its first dedicated Cygnus cargo ship under a $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. Liftoff of the ORB-1 mission, atop Orbital’s home-grown Antares booster, is expected as early as 15 December.
Assuming an on-time launch, ORB-1 will rendezvous with the ISS on 18 December, following a similar profile to that adopted by the highly successful ORB-D Demonstration Mission in September. It will spend about three weeks berthed at the nadir port of the Harmony node, with its departure currently planned on 17 January 2014. Less than a month later, on 11 February, SpaceX—NASA’s other CRS partner, which holds a $1.6 billion contract to deliver supplies aboard its Dragon cargo ship—will despatch its third dedicated mission, dubbed “SpX-3,” from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Berthing at the Harmony nadir port on 13 February, Dragon will spend a month attached to the station, with its departure anticipated in mid-March. Unlike Cygnus, which is intended to burn up in the atmosphere at the end of each mission, Dragon ships have the capacity to complete a parachute-assisted ocean splashdown.
The primary payload aboard the SpX-3 mission is the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS), a new communications technology demonstrator which might someday improve spacecraft data rates by a factor of 10-100. It will operate aboard the space station for about three months. “It’s like aiming a laser pointer continuously for two minutes at a dot the diameter of a human hair, from 30 feet away, while you’re walking,” explained systems engineer Bogdan Oaida of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. Also aboard SpX-3 will be the High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) experiment to observe the Home Planet from multiple angles using four high-definition cameras. The SpX-3 flight will also be the first Dragon to rise atop SpaceX’s new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket, which boasts uprated Merlin-1D engines and staged its inaugural mission on 29 September from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
With Kotov, Ryazansky, and Mike Hopkins due to board Soyuz TMA-10M and return to Earth on 12 March—completing a 168-day mission—the station’s population will be temporarily reduced to just three occupants: Tyurin, Mastracchio, and Wakata. Shortly before his departure, Kotov will hand command to Wakata, who will become the first Japanese to lead an ISS expedition. Two weeks after the departure of Kotov’s crew, on 26 March 2014, Soyuz TMA-12M will roar aloft from Baikonur, carrying Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev and NASA astronaut Steve Swanson. This will expand Wakata’s Expedition 39 crew to its full six-man strength.
“Japan is very happy to have this opportunity to have the ISS Commander from the Japanese astronaut corps,” said Wakata in his pre-flight NASA interview. “It is a big challenge for me and I am just fortunate to be able to learn a lot from my previous ISS commanders and shuttle commanders.” Recalling Brian Duffy—who commanded his STS-72 and STS-92 shuttle flights—as well as Lee Archambault and Mark Polansky and Russian cosmonaut Gennadi Padalka, with whom he flew at various stages during his 138-day mission in March-July 2009, Wakata has paid tribute to their leadership qualities and mentorship. “They are great leaders,” he said, “they pay attention to details, they listen well, they delegate tasks and they are wonderful communicators with the Mission Control Center folks. I just want to be like them and I was very fortunate to be able to experience and to learn from these wonderful leaders.”
On a practical, day-to-day basis, Wakata expects that he will continue many of his flight engineer duties from Expedition 38 into his new role at the head of Expedition 39. “In addition to that, I will be taking the lead as the point of contact in the communications, daily and weekly, with the Mission Control Centers throughout the world,” he said, “and also the program management of the International Space Station in the different countries. I need to make sure that everybody in the crew is in a healthy condition and safety comes first and efficiency and also the happiness of the crew members. I’m just fortunate to be able to fly with such talented and dedicated crew members.”
As noted in a recent AmericaSpace article, the final days of Tyurin, Mastracchio, and Wakata’s mission may feature the arrival of another SpaceX Dragon craft. Present plans call for SpX-4 to launch on 29 April, transporting the Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) instrument into orbit to analyze high-energy cosmic radiation from a perch on the Exposed Facility of Japan’s Kibo laboratory. With the undocking of Progress M-21M and the arrival of Progress M-23M also scheduled for late April, Expedition 38/39 is shaping up to be a busy increment, dominated by regular deliveries and science. Current plans anticipated Tyurin, Mastracchio, and Wakata’s mission to end on 14 May 2014, with the touchdown of their Soyuz TMA-11M descent module in Kazakhstan, after 189 days in orbit.
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