Less than 24 hours since its Progress M-20M cargo craft undocked from the International Space Station (ISS), following six months in residence, Russia is ready to launch another unpiloted freighter Wednesday, 5 February, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Liftoff of Progress M-22M—also known as “Progress 54P,” the 54th of its kind to head to the ISS—is scheduled to occur from Site 1/5 at 10:23:33 p.m. Baikonur time (11:23:33 a.m. EST), after which the spacecraft will follow a now-standard six-hour, four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile and dock at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Pirs module at 4:24 a.m. Baikonur time Thursday (5:24 p.m. EST Wednesday). It will deliver 5,600 pounds (2,540 kg) of food, propellant, and supplies for the incumbent Expedition 38 crew.
Progress M-22M was delivered to Baikonur in November 2013 for electrical and leak checks and integrated testing, ahead of being loaded with propellants and compressed gases last week. Following technical management meetings and the customary Russian Government Commission, authorization was granted Sunday, 2 February, to transfer the spacecraft out to the pad. Early yesterday morning (Monday), the Soyuz-U booster—a direct descendent of Chief Designer Sergei Korolev’s R-7 missile—with Progress M-22M safely encapsulated in its payload shroud, was rolled horizontally out to Site 1/5 and raised to a vertical configuration. Electrical and propellant umbilicals were connected, as technicians prepared for battery charging and fueling operations.
The process of loading liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) aboard the booster is expected to commence about five hours before tomorrow’s liftoff, after which it was transition into a topping mode, whereby all cryogenic boil-off of propellants will be rapidly replenished. This will ensure that the liquid oxygen tanks are maintained at Flight Ready levels, ahead of the ignition of the Soyuz-U’s single RD-118 first-stage engine and the RD-117 engines of its four tapering strap-on boosters. Internal avionics will be initiated and the on-board flight recorders will be spooled-up to monitor the vehicle’s myriad systems. At T-10 seconds, the turbopumps on the core and strap-on boosters will come to life. After confirmation that the engines are all running at full power, the fueling tower will be retracted, and Progress M-22M will roar into the darkened sky at 10:23:33 p.m. Baikonur time (11:23:33 a.m. EST).
Rising rapidly, the vehicle will pass 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h) within a minute of liftoff, during which time the maximum amount of aerodynamic stress (known as “Max Q”) is expected to impact the vehicle’s airframe. At T+118 seconds, at an altitude of about 28 miles (45 km), the four strap-on boosters will exhaust their liquid oxygen and RP-1 and will be jettisoned, leaving the central core and its single engine to continue the ascent. By two minutes into the flight, the rocket will be traveling at over 3,350 mph (5,390 km/h). The payload shroud and escape tower will be jettisoned shortly afterward, and, some four minutes and 47 seconds after leaving Baikonur, the core stage will separate at an altitude of 105 miles (170 km) and the RD-0110 engine of the third stage will ignite to boost Progress M-22M to a velocity in excess of 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h). By the point of third stage separation, about nine minutes into the flight, the vehicle will be in space.
Separation of Progress M-22M from the final stage of the launch vehicle is expected to take place into a target orbit of approximately 120 x 152 miles (193 x 245 km), inclined 51.66 degrees to the equator. Shortly afterward, the process of unfurling its solar arrays and Kurs (“Course”) rendezvous and navigation appendages will get underway. In a similar manner to several earlier Progresses—which, like recent piloted Soyuz-TMA craft have pursued “fast rendezvous” profiles— this mission is aiming for a docking at the ISS just six hours (and four orbits) after launch.
In anticipation of the Progress M-22M arrival, Expedition 38 Commander Oleg Kotov and Flight Engineer Mikhail Tyurin spent Monday morning conducting a training session with the Telerobotically Operated Rendezvous Unit (TORU), which could be used to remotely guide the unpiloted cargo ship to its docking port in the event that its Kurs-NA automated rendezvous system experiences a problem.
After docking with the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Pirs module, Progress M-22M will deliver 5,600 pounds (2,540 kg) of supplies to the Expedition 38 crew, which consists of Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, Sergei Ryazansky, and Mikhail Tyurin, Japan’s Koichi Wakata, and NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio. The supply ship’s pressurized compartment houses 2,740 pounds (1,244 kg) of dry cargo, including systems maintenance hardware, hygiene equipment, food provisions, medical supplies, and personal protection and emergency equipment. It will also carry a payload of goldfish, worms, and mosquito larvae as part of a joint experiment between the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems. This experiment will focus on skeletal muscle changes and embryonic development of the fish and the cultivation of organisms and regeneration of tissues in the mosquito larvae and worms. The Progress will also deliver 1,450 pounds (660 kg) of propellant for the space station’s tanks. It will remain docked at Pirs until April, after which it will be separated and deorbited in the upper atmosphere.
The preparations for the Progress M-22M launch ran concurrently with the undocking of an earlier cargo craft, Progress M-20M, from Pirs at 12:21 a.m. Baikonur time Tuesday, 4 February (1:21 p.m. EST Monday, 3 February). The latter had been in residence at the ISS since last July and will spend the next few days in autonomous free flight, conducting the Izgib experiment, which seeks to measure micro-accelerations of the spacecraft whilst in different attitudes using on-board accelerometers and gyroscopes. Current plans call for Progress M-20M to be deorbited Tuesday, 11 February.
With the arrival of Progress M-22M at the ISS on Wednesday evening, no fewer than two Progresses will be in attendance at the multi-national laboratory. Another craft, Progress M-21M, was launched in November 2013 and is presently docked at the aft longitudinal port of the Zvezda module, from which it executed a periodic reboost of the space station’s orbital altitude in December. Progress M-21M will perform a second reboost later this month and is expected to undock in mid-April for two days of tests of its new Kurs-NA navigation system. It will then redock and remain at the ISS until mid-June, after which it will separate for the final time and be deorbited. According to the present manifest, Progress M-23M will launch in early April, followed by Progress M-24M in late July and Progress M-25M in late October. These visitors will provide vital support for the five crews—of Expeditions 38 through 42—who will occupy the ISS in 2014.
Progress has a storied history. Its development began in 1973 in response to the anticipated problem of resupplying and refueling the Soviet Union’s Salyut 6 space station, whose cosmonauts went on to spend more than six months at a time in orbit. Modeled closely on the Soyuz spacecraft, its interior was redesigned to house foodstuffs, water, experiments, and fuel for the station’s manoeuvring thrusters. Since its maiden voyage, Progress has seen many changes, but its role has remained largely unchanged … and the numbers speak for themselves. Between its first launch in January 1978 and today’s flight, no fewer than 144 Progresses have roared aloft. Only one has failed to reach its destination: the unlucky Progress M-12M in August 2011, whose launch vehicle suffered an engine malfunction and re-entered the atmosphere over the Altai region.
Writing in 1998, astronaut Jerry Linenger—one of the handful of U.S. astronauts to reside aboard Russia’s Mir space station—recounted the sheer joy of receiving a shoebox full of goodies from his wife and children: “Once found, and munching on fresh apples that had also arrived in the Progress,” he described in his memoir, Off the Planet, “we individually retreated from our work and sneaked off to private sections of the space station, eager to peruse the box’s contents.” Fellow astronaut John Blaha once described similar excitement: “Once we found our packages,” he wrote, “it was like Christmas and your birthday, all rolled together, when you are five years old. We really had a lot of fun reading mail, laughing, opening presents, eating fresh tomatoes and cheese.” In more recent times, ISS crew members have done much the same. In February 2008, Peggy Whitson, commander of Expedition 16, remembered crewmate Dan Tani calling one Progress “the onion express,” as the latest delivery of letters from home and fresh foodstuffs arrived.
In their book Soyuz: A Universal Spacecraft, David Shayler and the late Rex Hall speculated that the term “Progress” may have originated from the implication of having made significant progress in space station operations, although the precise heritage of the name remains unclear. What is clear, though, is that aside from the technical and functional role of Progress over the decades, it has provided an indispensable psychological crutch for dozens of cosmonauts and astronauts—a crutch which has enabled them to overcome the profound isolation of the strange microgravity environment, far from family and friends.
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