“Hit the Ground Running”: Busy Space Station Times Ahead

Official crew portrait of Expedition 31 (Acaba, Padalka, Revin) and Expedition 32 (S. Williams, Hoshide, Malenchenko). Photo Date: January 17, 2012. Location: Building 8, Room 183 - Photo Studio. Photo Credit: NASA

Sunday’s landing of Soyuz TMA-03M brought Oleg Kononenko, Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers safely back to Earth after more than half a year in orbit and ushered in the official start of Expedition 32 on the International Space Station. The coming months aboard the outpost promise to be exciting and dramatic, with no fewer than two spacewalks scheduled from the US and Russian segments, plus a Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), SpaceX’s first dedicated Dragon cargo flight, the maiden voyage of Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus craft, the departure of a European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and a ‘fast-rendezvous’ experiment which aims to dock a Progress freighter onto the space station just seven hours after launch.The three men touched down on the barren steppe at 2:14 pm local time, in the hinterland of the large copper-mining city of Jezkazgan in Kazakhstan’s semi-arid heart. Kononenko, who now has a cumulative year in orbit from his two space missions, seemed to wince as he was extracted from the Soyuz descent module. He also appeared tired and drawn. It was reported that Pettit fainted briefly, but was later photographed savouring his first experience of the sweet air of Earth, and an exhausted Kuipers grinned broadly for photographers. Shortly thereafter, the men separated, departing on Russian MI-8 helicopters to a nearby airfield, from whence Kononenko returned to Star City, near Moscow, and Pettit and Kuipers to the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Their mission, which began shortly before Christmas, extended to 192 days, 18 hours and 58 minutes; some six weeks longer than originally planned, due to delays in preparing the Soyuz spacecraft of the present station crew, Gennadi Padalka, Sergei Revin and Joe Acaba. With this impressive duration, Dutch physician Kuipers smartly eclipsed the previous European single-flight record of Belgium’s Frank de Winne, who had chalked up almost 188 days in May-December 2009. Meanwhile, Pettit became only the fourth American to spend a cumulative year in orbit. The 57-year-old chemical engineer now stands behind Mike Fincke, Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson – who was on hand at the landing site – and Mike Foale as America’s fourth most experienced spacefarer, with almost 370 days aloft. Pettit also became the oldest long-duration resident of the station. In terms of the ‘old-man’ crown, Pettit’s accomplishment will be broken in April 2013, when 59-year-old Pavel Vinogradov arrives aboard Soyuz TMA-08M.

Seconds from touchdown on the arid Kazakh steppe, near Jezkazgan in Karagandy Province, Soyuz TMA-03M brought Oleg Kononenko, Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers home after 192 days in orbit. Photo Credit: NASA

A few hours before landing, Kononenko officially handed over command to fellow cosmonaut Padalka, who has been aboard the International Space Station with crewmates Sergei Revin and NASA’s Joe Acaba since mid-May. At the helm of Expedition 32, Padalka becomes the first person to command three long-duration flights aboard the station. His crew is due to expand to a full strength of six on 17 July, when Soyuz TMA-05M arrives with NASA astronaut Suni Williams, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Aki Hoshide of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Due to the Soyuz delays experienced earlier this year, both expeditions will run for around four months, with Padalka’s crew scheduled to return to Earth on 17 September and Williams’ crew on 12 November. This is somewhat shorter than the normal six-month span of each increment and although the astronauts and cosmonauts have expressed disappointment, the consensus was summed up well by Williams: “Any spaceflight is a great spaceflight!”

The work of spaceflight will begin almost immediately, with Japan’s third HTV scheduled for launch on 21 July. Following a six-day rendezvous profile, it will be captured by the station’s Canadarm2 and berthed onto the Earth-facing nadir port of the Harmony node. With Aki Hoshide aboard, this will be the first time that a Japanese astronaut has been present for the arrival of a Japanese cargo craft. “It’s a very personal visiting vehicle for me,” he explained, “and I look forward to being there when HTV-3 arrives. Obviously, it’s a Japan-built vehicle, launching on a Japanese rocket, and, I guess, having a Japanese crew member up there to work on it will be of very significant importance.” According to Hoshide, a minimum of three crew members on the US segment are required to support a HTV berthing and thus its arrival could not occur whilst Acaba was alone. On 27 July, the two men will operate Canadarm2 from within the dome-like Cupola and Acaba will perform the actual grapple of the incoming craft.

After berthing, HTV-3’s equipment-laden Exposed Pallet will be robotically transferred by Canadarm2 to the Japanese Exposed Facility, a large ‘porch’ at the far end of the Kibo laboratory complex. The Japanese module’s mechanical arm will then remove the Multi-Mission Consolidated Equipment (MCE) from the Exposed Pallet and install it onto the Exposed Facility. Shortly thereafter, the station’s Dextre robot will remove the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) testbed from the Exposed Facility and install it onto one of the Express Logistics Carriers. The now-empty Exposed Pallet will then be transferred back to HTV-3. “Pretty complex,” said Joe Acaba, with the subtlest hint of understatement. “You’re using all the arms pretty much that we have on station. It’ll be fun to do.”

For Williams, Malenchenko and Hoshide, the arrival of HTV-3, so soon after their own arrival, offers little time for them to acclimatise to their new environment. “We had some of these discussions,” said Williams, “with our flight control team and our flight directors and we’ve made some trade-offs, ’cause initially there’s some time in the beginning for a handover.” On this mission, Williams’ team will have no such luxury and have spent much time in recent weeks engaging in training video teleconferences with Padalka’s men in orbit, to ensure that “we’ll be ready to hit the ground running as soon as we arrive”.

In the Cupola trainer at the Johnson Space Center, Suni Williams and Aki Hoshide rehearse Canadarm2 manoeuvres. Their mission will include multiple spacecraft berthings and unberthings, including Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), Japan's H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), SpaceX's Dragon and possibly Orbital Sciences' Cygnus. Photo Credit: NASA

The pace of the mission will show no signs of slacking and, in fact, will noticeably accelerate as the summer progresses. Following the undocking of Russia’s Progress M-15M/47P cargo craft at the end of July, a new vehicle will be launched on the evening of 1 August…with a noticeable difference over its predecessors. It has become clear in recent weeks that the new Progress M-16M/48P will attempt an experimental ‘fast-rendezvous’ approach profile and should be in position to dock with the space station early on 2 August…a mere seven hours after launch! Yuri Malenchenko is assigned primary responsibility for Progress docking and undocking operations and if this fast rendezvous succeeds, it will undoubtedly also be applied to subsequent missions.

Next month should feature two EVAs: a Russian excursion by Padalka and Malenchenko on 16 August, followed by a spacewalk from the US segment, featuring Williams and Hoshide, on the 30th. (Ahead of the first EVA, Williams has half-jokingly warned her two Russian crewmates to be careful, since Padalka and Malenchenko are the commanders of Expedition 32’s respective Soyuz craft.) Spacewalking is nothing new to either cosmonaut – Padalka has previously done six, Malenchenko four – and on this outing they will relocate the large Strela cargo crane from the Pirs docking compartment onto the Zarya control module. This work will be in preparation for the eventual undocking of Piers and the arrival of the new ‘Nauka’ Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module (MLM), already many years overdue, but according to Padalka now scheduled for launch “in one year”.

As his two comrades labour outside, Sergei Revin will be based inside the Poisk Mini-Research Module (MRM-2) – to which Soyuz TMA-04M is present docked – and will be responsible for their safety and for film coverage of the EVA. Malenchenko expects them to spend up to six hours outside and in addition to relocating the Strela they will release a small free-flying satellite, collect several exposed material samples and deploy a series of micrometeoroid orbital debris panels. “Based on the hydrolab runs that we’ve had,” said Malenchenko, “we feel very comfortable that these activities are well within realm of possible.”

Two weeks later, on 30 August, Williams – a veteran of four previous EVAs – and Hoshide will venture out of the Quest airlock to remove and replace a failed Main Bus Switching Unit (MBSU-1), a distribution hub for the electrical power system. “We have four of them on the space station,” said Williams. “One of them hasn’t been working quite a hundred percent for probably the last eight or nine months and we’ve been talking about trying to get this guy replaced. It’s nothing critical at the moment in time. It just decreases some of our redundancy and, of course, with a humungous space station that we have and all the laboratories that are running and all the power that’s coming from the solar arrays, we like to have as much flexibility as possible. So we’d like to replace that MBSU.” A secondary goal of the EVA is to route a set of cables – carried aloft aboard Progress M-16M/48P – to the Russian segment, part of get-ahead work in anticipation of the MLM launch.

Astronauts Suni Williams and Aki Hoshide are submerged beneath the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center during training. Their excursion on 30 August will make Hoshide only the third Japanese to perform a spacewalk and will mark America's first EVA in more than a year. Photo Credit: NASA

According to Williams, these two tasks originally formed two EVAs, which have since been combined into a single, six-hour excursion. “One spacewalker will be primarily doing the MBSU,” she said, “and there’s a couple critical places where they need to probably have two people, when the spare is getting disconnected from its platform and when the prime MBSU is going to get installed into its final home. That’s when the two crew members will work together, then the other crew member will be laying the cables from the S-0 [truss], all the way back towards [Zarya].”

The sheer size and bulk of the MBSU, which weighs approximately 220 pounds, will require the support of Joe Acaba, inside the station. He will control Canadarm2, driving Hoshide to the External Stowage Platform (ESP-2) to pick up the MBSU and eventually to the S-0 truss. It will be Hoshide’s first EVA and he has received much guidance from other astronauts. Acaba has performed spacewalks on his first mission, STS-119, and for him it will be “pretty cool” to see his Japanese friend go outside. One other task for Williams and Hoshide is the installation of a thermal cover onto the Pressurised Mating Adaptor (PMA-2) at the forward end of the Harmony node. Since this adaptor is no longer needed for Shuttle dockings, and will not be required for several years until the first commercial crew vehicle arrives, the cover will provide thermal protection.

Six days after the spacewalk, the crew will bid farewell to HTV-3 and on 17 September to Padalka, Revin and Acaba, as they return to Earth after four months in orbit. At this point, Williams will assume command, becoming only the second woman ever to take this position of ultimate responsibility. From her perspective, however, she does not foresee any serious problems. “Everybody up there is so experienced and so knowledgeable,” she said. “I’ve got a team that we’ve worked for the last two and a half years together and I think that’s where you really foster that leadership-followership thing. When you get up on the space station, you know what to do, so I’m not nervous about it at all. I’m psyched.”

Viewed through the windows of the Cupola, SpaceX's first Dragon approaches the International Space Station. In early October, its first dedicated cargo flight - designated 'SpX-1' - will kick off 12 missions between 2012 and 2015. Photo Credit: NASA

With Padalka’s men gone, Williams, Malenchenko and Hoshide will be on their own for a full month until the next increment – NASA’s Kevin Ford and Russians Oleg Novitsky and Yevgeni Tarelkin – arrives aboard Soyuz TMA-06M on 17 October. During their month alone, Williams and her two colleagues will oversee the departure of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) on 23 September and, if the present schedule holds, will welcome the first dedicated Dragon mission under the $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract, signed between SpaceX and NASA in December 2008. Dragon is slated to arrive on 7 October and will form the first of 12 contracted cargo flights between 2012 and 2015.

The second key player in this commercial cargo contract, Orbital Sciences, is presently scheduled to launch a full-up demonstration of its freighter, Cygnus, in November, but this depends entirely upon the performance of the company’s Antares booster on its maiden flight in August. By the time Cygnus arrives, the next crew of Ford, Novitsky and Tarelkin should be aboard the International Space Station. Ford, a veteran Shuttle pilot, will assume command from Williams and on 7 December the next three station crew members – Canadian Chris Hadfield, NASA’s Tom Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko – will arrive aboard Soyuz TMA-07M to begin the station’s march into 2013.

If Russia’s MLM Nauka module arrives next year and does not meet with additional delay, it should bring the multi-national outpost ever closer to completion, some 15 years after the launch of the first elements in November-December 1998. Yuri Malenchenko has seen the International Space Station change significantly during his four missions there: in September 2000, it was comparatively small, whilst in mid-2003 construction had effectively stalled in the wake of the Columbia disaster. His third expedition in 2007-2008 saw the station expand with European and Japanese components and now, in this Olympic year, he will see it in its near-final state: as a shining icon of international co-operation and near-miraculous technological accomplishment. “This,” said Malenchenko, “is very exciting for me.”

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