The second half of Expedition 37—the current increment of astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS)—got underway in spectacular fashion today, with the blazing nighttime liftoff of Soyuz TMA-10M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Liftoff occurred precisely on schedule at 2:58 a.m. Kazakh time Thursday (4:58 p.m. EDT Wednesday), carrying Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky and NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins. Within nine minutes, the crew was in space and set work on a busy “fast rendezvous” profile, which achieved a docking at the ISS just six hours and four orbits after launch. Soyuz TMA-10M arrived at the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module at 10:45 p.m. EDT Wednesday, a couple of minutes ahead of schedule, and hatches were opened. The new arrivals were welcomed aboard the ISS by incumbent Expedition 37 crew members Fyodor Yurchikhin, Karen Nyberg, and Luca Parmitano.
As detailed in yesterday’s AmericaSpace preview article, preparations for tonight’s launch entered high gear with the arrival of the three-man prime crew and their backups—Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev and NASA astronaut Steve Swanson—at the desolate Baikonur site on 13 September. Two days ago, on Monday, the giant rocket carrying Soyuz TMA-10M was rolled in a horizontal orientation from its assembly building to the historic launch zone, from which Yuri Gagarin began his pioneering voyage more than five decades ago.
Tonight’s launch begins the third same-day rendezvous and docking by a piloted craft in the ISS era, coming hard on the heels of Soyuz TMA-08M in March and Soyuz TMA-09M in May. “Tonight’s flight profile is the Rapid Rendezvous profile, as used in the last few Soyuz flights,” explained AmericaSpace’s Launch Tracker. “This shortens the time between launch and docking considerably, but means that the Soyuz must launch at a precise second. If the launch is delayed slightly or there is a minor problem on the ascent, then the launch team can revert back to the standard approach profile.” About four hours ahead of the scheduled liftoff time, Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins were helped into their Sokol launch and entry suits and were spotted disembarking from the bus at the base of the pad at about 12:30 a.m. Kazakh time Thursday (2:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday). Half an hour later, all three men were in their specially contoured seats aboard the Soyuz TMA-10M descent module.
With Kotov in the center seat, commanding today’s flight, flanked by Ryazansky to his left and Hopkins to his right, the trio verified the integrity of their suits and sat through a lengthy series of checks of their spacecraft. At 2 a.m. Kazakh time Thursday (4 p.m. EDT Wednesday), an hour ahead of liftoff, the rocket transitioned to its internal guidance system and technicians began the process of evacuating the pad area. “The weather is clear,” noted the Tracker, “and there should be a great view of the rocket as it lifts off and starts the chase-down of the ISS.” Forty minutes before launch, the servicing tower was retracted and the rocket was exposed in all its grandeur. Fueling with refined rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen was concluded and the latter moved into a topping-off mode to ensure that cryogenic “boil-off” was rapidly replenished until shortly before launch time. This ensured that the LOX tanks were maintained at Flight Ready levels, ahead of first-stage ignition.
A mere 15 minutes before launch—demonstrative of the differing pre-flight practices of Russia and the United States’ now-retired shuttle program—the final technicians were evacuated from the vicinity of the pad area. Shortly afterwards, the Launch Abort System (LAS) was armed and transferred to Automatic Mode. Ten minutes before launch, the three men were instructed to close their visors. “The internal avionics have now been activated,” noted the Tracker, “and the on-board flight recorders have spooled up and are monitoring the rocket’s systems and flight.”
Inside the control bunker, the “launch key” was inserted at T-5 minutes—effectively enabling the ordnance which would support today’s launch—and the final phase of the countdown saw the completion of nitrogen purging, pressurization of the rocket’s tanks, and topping-off of its cryogenic propellants. A minute before launch, the rocket—a descendent of the vehicle which once boosted Yuri Gagarin into orbit—transitioned to internal power supplies. At T-10 seconds, the engine turbopumps reached full speed, and the engines themselves were confirmed to be at maximum thrust a few seconds later. This resulted in the retraction of the pad’s fueling tower and a spectacular liftoff into the darkened Baikonur sky.
Within a minute of clearing the tower, the rocket was already traveling at more than 1,100 mph, and at T+118 seconds the four tapering strap-on boosters were jettisoned, as planned, leaving the core alone to complete the push into low-Earth orbit, under the impulse of its single RD-108 engine. By the two-minute mark, Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins had surpassed 3,350 mph, and, shortly thereafter, the escape tower and launch shroud separated, exposing Soyuz TMA-10M to vacuum for the first time. Four minutes and 58 seconds after leaving the desolate steppe of Central Asia, the core booster separated at an altitude of 105.6 statute miles and the third and final stage ignited to boost the Soyuz to a velocity of more than 13,420 mph. By the time the third stage separated, nine minutes into the flight, Kotov, Ryazansky, and Hopkins were in space and could begin the process of deploying their craft’s antennas and solar arrays. At the point of orbital insertion, Soyuz TMA-10M trailed the ISS by about 2,000 miles.
Within minutes of orbital insertion, Soyuz TMA-10M’s antennas and solar arrays were successfully deployed, priming the craft for its approach to the ISS. The first two computer-commanded thruster firings were executed within the first 90-minute orbit of Earth, with several more conducted over the next five hours. Following the smooth docking, under Kotov’s command, a complex series of pressure and other checks were performed to verify the combined ships’ integrity. Hatch opening took place at 12:34 a.m. EDT Thursday and the new crew were engulfed in smiles and hugs from Expedition 37 crew members Yurchikhin, Nyberg and Parmitano. The latter have been aboard the space station since 29 May.
Although same-day rendezvous and docking are nothing new—and America’s three Skylab crews in the early 1970s arrived at their orbital home eight or nine hours after launch—it has been typical during ISS missions to follow a longer profile of around two days, which has proven more economical in terms of propellant expenditure and the demands of orbital mechanics. However, the confines of Russia’s tiny Soyuz capsule are cramped and highly stressful and often serve to exacerbate sensations of nausea and motion sickness.
Getting crews to the station soon, though hugely complicated, was considered highly desirable. Writing last year, analyst James Oberg explained that a fast rendezvous plan had been developed, involving a ballet of between four and six thruster firings to create the right conditions for an early docking. “The destination in space,” wrote Oberg, “must be lined up much more precisely in a narrow ‘slot’ in the sky. With the two-day profile, that destination could be anywhere halfway along the ISS’ round-the-world orbital track … but with the fast-track rendezvous, the target must be maneuvered in advance into a segment of the target’s orbit that is only 20 degrees wide at the time of the spacecraft’s launch.” In August 2012, Russia’s Progress M-16M—or “48P” in ISS Program-speak—completed the first “fast rendezvous” with the ISS. Since then, other Progress vehicles have followed suit and the Soyuz TMA-08M and Soyuz TMA-09M have demonstrated that the process is not overly stressful to human passengers.
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