Since November 2000, thirty-six discrete groups of men and women from nine sovereign nations—the United States, Russia, Germany, France, Japan, Belgium, Canada, Italy, and the Netherlands—have lived and worked aboard the International Space Station for months at a time. But even after more than a decade of uninterrupted—though disrupted—human presence on the multi-national orbiting outpost, there is no such thing as a “typical” ISS expedition. Some crews have spent their months working with visiting shuttle and Soyuz crews, others have handled spacewalks and emergencies, whilst still others have spent their entire mission alone with just one other person and have been physically separated from friends and family at times of the most acute trauma back on Earth. The Expedition 36 “core” crew of Russian cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov and Aleksandr Misurkin, together with NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, are due to return to Earth tomorrow after almost six months in orbit … and their long voyage has demonstrated that space missions can never be truly routine or predictable.
Like many of its predecessors, Expedition 36—which is due to end on Wednesday, 11 September with the touchdown of Soyuz TMA-08M and its crew of Vinogradov, Misurkin, and Cassidy on the desolate steppe of Kazakhstan—has been a mission which set out with several key objectives. One of these was the first “fast rendezvous” between the ISS and a piloted craft, in which the Soyuz would dock with the space station a mere six hours after launch.
“It’s a really exciting and interesting concept to do,” explained Cassidy before launch. “Typically, we’ll launch on one day, go to bed, be up that whole second day with a few tasks and activities, but not much significant activity, and then go to sleep again and wake up and rendezvous on the third day. We’ll scrunch that whole timeline down into about a six-hour period.” From the perspective of the crew, it left them with a lot of time in their seats and in their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits. The decision to adopt the fast rendezvous approach for Soyuz TMA-08M was formally approved by the International Partners in February 2013, and its success led it to be repeated by the Soyuz TMA-09M crew, launched toward the space station on 28 May.
The Soyuz TMA-08M mission, which would form the “core” of the future Expedition 36, lifted off in a blazing display of fire and light from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 2:43:22 a.m. local time on 29 March (4:43:22 p.m. EDT on 28 March). In command was veteran cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, who had two previous long-duration missions under his belt. He had served as a flight engineer aboard Mir in August 1997-February 1998 and commanded Expedition 13 to the ISS in March-September 2006, accruing a total of more than 380 days in orbit.
On his third flight, Vinogradov became the oldest Russian cosmonaut in history, aged 59 years and 7 months, which exceeded the previous record-holder, Valeri Ryumin, by about 11 months. Before launch, he was clearly looking forward to his latest stay aboard the much larger ISS. “People who were on board the station,” he told a NASA interviewer, “feel that it’s their second home and it will be like coming home for me.” Flight engineers Aleksandr Misurkin and Chris Cassidy rounded out Vinogradov’s crew. Although Cassidy had flown once before—as a mission specialist aboard STS-127 in July 2009, during which he made three EVAs to install and outfit the external components of Japan’s Kibo laboratory complex—Soyuz TMA-08M marked the first space voyage for Misurkin.
Upon their arrival at the space station’s zenith-facing Poisk module, following the six-hour “fast rendezvous,” at 8:28 a.m. Baikonur time on 29 March (10:28 p.m. EDT on 28 March), Vinogradov, Misurkin, and Cassidy formed the second half of Expedition 35, under the command of Canada’s Chris Hadfield. Three weeks into their joint mission, Vinogradov secured another record for himself when he ventured outside the Russian segment of the station, alongside fellow cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, to perform an EVA and became not only Russia’s oldest spacewalker, but the oldest spacewalker in history. Vinogradov soundly surpassed the previous record set by U.S. astronaut Story Musgrave, who was 58 years old at the time of the STS-61 Hubble servicing mission in December 1993.
During the course of their EVA, Vinogradov and Romanenko deployed a plasma-wave and space weather experiment and retrieved the Biorisk and one of two Vinoslivost materials sample panels from the exterior of the Russian segment. They also replaced a faulty navigational retroreflector to support Europe’s upcoming ATV-4 cargo craft. It had long been anticipated that Expedition 36 would herald a hot and heavy summer of EVAs—with at least three from the Russian segment in June and August and two from the U.S. segment in July—but it could hardly have been known that Vinogradov, Misurkin, and Cassidy would face their first spacewalking trial before they even assumed stewardship over the station.
In early May, as Expedition 35 crewmen Hadfield, Romanenko, and NASA’s Tom Marshburn prepared to return to Earth, a serious incident arose when a leak was visually observed in the form of ammonia “snow” emanating from the critical 2B power channel of the station’s 17,000-pound P-6 truss. Within two days, a hasty EVA plan was assembled, and on 11 May Cassidy and Marshburn ventured outside for five hours and 30 minutes to tend to the problem. Although they found only a few tiny flakes of ammonia, it was deemed prudent to remove, replace, and test a suspect Pump Flow Control Subassembly (PFCS), which was expected to yield additional clues for investigators as they sought the root problem.
Three days after the EVA, on 14 May, Hadfield, Romanenko, and Marshburn were safely back on Earth, having handed command of the ISS to Vinogradov. This marked the formal beginning of Expedition 36, whose initial three members expanded to six on 28 May when Soyuz TMA-09M arrived with Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, NASA’s Karen Nyberg, and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano. In mid-June, the five male members of the crew paused briefly to celebrate Father’s Day in orbit. Vinogradov, Misurkin, Cassidy, Yurchikhin, and Parmitano have 10 children between them, whilst Karen Nyberg and her husband, fellow NASA astronaut Doug Hurley, have one child.
Despite having already supported two EVAs as part of Hadfield’s Expedition 35, the first formal spacewalk of the Expedition 36 mission took place on 24 June, when Yurchikhin and Misurkin spent six hours and 34 minutes outside the ISS. They made preparations for the arrival of Russia’s long-awaited Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module (MLM)—known as “Nauka” (“Science”)—which was originally planned for launch in December 2013, but has now slipped extensively and seems unlikely to fly before the summer of next year. As well as fitting clamps for future power cables, which will culminate in the removal of the Pirs docking module and installation of Nauka, Yurchikhin and Misurkin retrieved two science experiments, installed another, and replaced an aging fluid flow control panel on the Zarya control module.
Two weeks later, on 9 July, history was made when Parmitano ventured outside the station, clad in a pure white space suit … but with a notable difference: the arm bore the il Tricolore (tricolor) red, white, and green flag of Italy on its sleeve. Although he had been preceded into space by several other Italians—including Italy’s first astronaut, Franco Malerba, back in July 1992—it was Parmitano’s crowning achievement to become the first of his countrymen in history to perform a spacewalk. Designated “EVA-22,” the excursion saw Parmitano and Cassidy working outside for six hours and seven minutes. The men replaced a failed component of the Space-to-Ground Antenna (SGANT), retrieved two scientific experiments from the ExPRESS Logistics Carrier (ELC)-2, and installed a pair of Radiator Grapple Bars (RGBs) to facilitate a means for the Canadarm2 robotic arm to interface with the station’s radiator elements and repair or replace them if necessary.
As planned, a second EVA by Cassidy and Parmitano was scheduled for 16 July, and this spacewalk turned out to be one of the most dramatic and hair-raising in space history. Every EVA is risky, but few have brought their participants face-to-face with the real and immediate possibility of serious injury or even death. On the world’s first EVA in March 1965, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov battled with an inflated pressure suit as he tried to get back inside the Voskhod-2 capsule, whilst on Gemini IX-A in June 1966 U.S. astronaut Gene Cernan’s visor fogged so badly that he could hardly see. On 16 July 2013, Luca Parmitano reminded us of the dangers of spacewalking, by enduring water intrusion into his helmet, during an EVA. The implications of this could have been dire and only an expertly managed flight plan, a pair of exceptionally well-trained spacewalkers, and a superb team in Mission Control turned EVA-23 from a potential disaster into a success.
The spacewalk began as nominally as a venture into the most harsh environment known to humanity could possibly begin. Cassidy and Parmitano parted company outside the Quest airlock, with the former moving to a work site atop the Z-1 truss to tend to a cable reconfiguration task and the latter translating to a position “beneath” the Unity node to begin laying data and Ethernet cables to support the MLM. Forty-five minutes into the planned 6.5-hour EVA, Parmitano made his first report of water droplets inside his helmet. Cassidy quickly joined him and verified the presence of up to 800 milliliters of water. The men initially suspected a coolant leak and reduced the suit’s flow rate accordingly, aware that the chance of a drinking bag leak seemed unlikely as it was already dry. Monitoring the increasingly tense situation from the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, was a team headed by ISS Flight Director David Korth. At 9:06 a.m. EDT—a little over one hour into the EVA, with Parmitano reporting that water was entering his eyes—Korth gave the call to terminate the spacewalk. Under his direction, Parmitano would proceed immediately to the airlock, whilst Cassidy cleaned up the work site.
Within five minutes, Parmitano was back at Quest, by now with water droplets entering his eyes, nose, and mouth. Cassidy handled the closure of the hatch, which was locked at 9:26 a.m. and repressed back up to ambient ISS pressure. “He looks miserable,” Cassidy said of his crewmate, “but he’s okay.” At 9:38 a.m., the hatch connecting the outer crew lock with the inner equipment lock was open and “intravehicular” crewmember Karen Nyberg removed Parmitano’s helmet, releasing a flurry of water droplets. The official end time for EVA-23 was 9:29 a.m. EDT, concluding a 92-minute spacewalk. This duration established the partially-successful spacewalk as the second-shortest ISS-based EVA in history.
Since then, two more Russian EVAs have taken place, on 16 August and 22 August, both by Yurchikhin and Misurkin. The first spacewalk created a new national record for the longest Russian EVA in history, as the cosmonauts spent seven hours and 16 minutes outside the station. This eclipsed the previous Soviet/Russian record by 13 minutes, although it falls well shy of the all-time world EVA record of eight hours and 56 minutes, set by U.S. astronauts Jim Voss and Susan Helms in March 2001. During their epic spacewalk, Yurchikhin and Misurkin rigged Ethernet and other data cables onto Zarya in readiness for the arrival of the Nauka module. Misurkin also installed the Vinoslivost materials exposure experiment onto the Poisk module.
Most recently, on 22 August, Yurchikhin and Misurkin completed the final Expedition 36 EVA. They spent five hours and 58 minutes outside the space station, replacing a laser communications experiment with a new platform for a small optical camera system, together with new EVA aids and inspections of antenna covers. Near the end of their excursion, the cosmonauts unfurled a Russian tricolor in commemoration of Russian Flag Day. In concluding the EVA—the fifth of Expedition 36 and the seventh since the launch of Vinogradov, Misurkin, and Cassidy—the record now stands at 173 spacewalks completed for ISS construction and maintenance since STS-88 in December 1998.
In addition to the drama of spacewalks, Expedition 36 has seen the coming and going of several important cargo craft from various International Partners. On 5 June, an Ariane 5 roared aloft from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana, carrying the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ATV-4 “Albert Einstein” with the largest payload of dry cargo ever ferried into orbit by a European vehicle. ATV-4 docked successfully at the Zvezda module on 15 June, bringing 5,500 pounds of food, water, equipment, fuel, and supplies for the Expedition 36 crew. In early July, ATV-4’s engines were utilized to perform a periodic “re-boost” of the space station’s orbit, and the cargo ship is expected to be undocked and deorbited in late October.
Next, on 3 August, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched its H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV)-4 “Kounotori” (“White Stork”) into orbit atop a H-IIB rocket from the Tanegashima Space Centre in southern Japan. Six days later, the craft was captured by the station’s Canadarm2—operated by Cassidy and Nyberg, with Parmitano monitoring the rendezvous—and berthed at the nadir port of the Harmony node. It carried 11,900 pounds of equipment and supplies to the Expedition 36 crew, including the newly-developed Freezer-Refrigerator of Stirling Cycle (FROST), which will cool experiment samples to below -70 degrees Celsius, even in cases of power outages, and a replacement Main Bus Switching Unit (MBSU). After a month at the station, the HTV-4 was unberthed on 5 September and was later destroyed, as planned, during re-entry.
With the return of Expedition 36 crewmen Vinogradov, Misurkin, and Cassidy tomorrow, another remarkable chapter will close on the International Space Station. Their mission has run for 167 days and, for the first time in ISS history, all but a handful of hours of that time has been spent aboard the orbiting outpost. Previous expeditions required around two days to arrive, via Soyuz or shuttle. Vinogradov has now accrued 547 days in space, spread across his three flights, and on 31 August cemented his achievement as the oldest Russian cosmonaut when he became the first person to celebrate a 60th birthday in orbit. With Expedition 36 now added to his tally, he jumps from being the 21st most experienced spacefarer of all time into the No. 10 spot.
The station is presently under the command of Fyodor Yurchikhin, whose core crew of Nyberg and Parmitano will work as a threesome for two weeks. On 25 September, Soyuz TMA-10M will launch from Baikonur, carrying another three crew members—Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky and NASA’s Mike Hopkins—to restore the new “Expedition 37” to its full, six-person strength. In November, a rare incidence of “direct” crew handover will occur, when Soyuz TMA-11M launches on 7 November with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, and Japan’s Koichi Wakata. Upon docking at the ISS, the station’s population will temporarily soar to nine people for the first time since the end of the shuttle era.
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 cosmonauts 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 Kotov and Ryazansky carrying a simulated Olympic torch into space as part of preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympics, which begin in February 2014. 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.
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, which will have been vacated by Europe’s ATV-4 a few days earlier. This will allow Soyuz TMA-11M to dock at Rassvet on 7 November, whilst Soyuz TMA-10M resides at the Poisk module.