Three new crew members—including a hot chili sauce lover from Moscow, a computer scientist from Colorado, and a Latvian engineer who studied in today’s Estonia and once served with the Soviet Army in Lithuania—will rocket toward the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow, completing the second half of the six-man Expedition 39 and laying the groundwork for Expedition 40, which will run the outpost throughout the summer. Soyuz TMA-12M is scheduled to launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:17 a.m. local time Wednesday, 26 March (5:17 p.m. EDT Tuesday, 25 March), carrying Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev and NASA astronaut Steve Swanson. With three previous space missions between them, a cumulative 203 days in orbit and experience of four past spacewalks, they have the right skills for a busy six months aboard the ISS.
The prime crew and their backups—Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev and Yelena Serova and NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore—completed their final exams inside the Soyuz simulator earlier this month. Both crews reportedly achieved “Excellent” scores. The two crews left the cosmonauts’ training center in Star City, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, and arrived at Baikonur on 13 March to begin preparations for launch, which included familiarization sessions in the simulator, checks of documentation, and fitting of their custom-made Sokol launch and entry suits and molded Soyuz seat liners.
Last week, the final checkout of the Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft was conducted, and on Saturday, 22 March, it was mated with the rocket. On Sunday, following unanimous authorization from technical management, the vehicle was transferred horizontally out to the pad and raised to the vertical. On Tuesday, clad in their Sokol suits, Skvortsov, Artemyev, and Swanson will arrive at the pad and be helped into their seats aboard Soyuz TMA-12M. Following final checks, Commander Skvortsov’s controls will be activated and the three men will be instructed to close their visors. Internal avionics will be initiated and the on-board flight recorders spooled up to monitor the myriad systems.
Inside the control bunker, the “launch key” will be inserted at T-5 minutes, effectively enabling the ordnance to support Soyuz TMA-12M’s ascent to orbit, and the final phase of the countdown will include the completion of nitrogen purging, the pressurization of propellant tanks, and the topping-off of cryogenics. At T-10 seconds, the turbopumps on the rocket’s central core and its four tapering strap-on boosters will awaken and the engines will steadily build up thrust to full power, producing a retraction of the fueling tower and a liftoff at 3:17 a.m. local time Wednesday (5:17 p.m. EDT Tuesday).
Rising rapidly, the vehicle will pass 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h) within a minute of liftoff, and at T+118 seconds, at an altitude of 28 miles (45 km), the four strap-on boosters will exhaust their propellant and be jettisoned. This will leave the central core and its single RD-108 engine to continue the push toward orbit. By two minutes into the flight, the vehicle will be traveling at more than 3,350 mph (5,390 km/h). The payload shroud and escape tower will be jettisoned shortly afterward, and, some 4 minutes and 58 seconds after leaving Baikonur, the core stage will separate at an altitude of 105 miles (170 km) and the third and final stage will roar to life to boost Skvortsov, Artemyev, and Swanson to a velocity in excess of 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h). By the time the third stage departs the vehicle, nine minutes into the flight, the crew will be in space.
As with the last four crewed ISS missions, Soyuz TMA-12M will follow a “fast rendezvous” profile to reach the space station a mere six hours, and four orbits, after liftoff. Two computer-guided thruster “burns” are scheduled to occur within the first 90-minute orbit of Earth, with several others to follow over the next couple of hours. According to NASA, the spacecraft will dock with the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk mini-research module at 11:04 p.m. EDT Tuesday, about five hours and 47 minutes after departing Baikonur. 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 at 12:45 a.m. EDT Wednesday, almost two hours after docking, and Skvortsov, Artemyev, and Swanson will undoubtedly be engulfed in hugs from the incumbent Expedition 39 crew of Japanese Commander Koichi Wakata, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, and NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio.
Wakata, Tyurin, and Mastracchio have been in orbit since early November 2013 and will remain aloft until mid-May. Two weeks ago, with the departure of Expedition 38, Wakata became the first Japanese to command the ISS. With the arrival of Skvortsov, Artemyev, and Swanson, Expedition 39 will increase to six members. Wakata and Swanson have flown together in March 2009; the former as Japan’s first long-duration ISS resident, the latter as a mission specialist on STS-119. “Koichi is a fantastic person,” admitted Swanson. “He always got the term The Man from his earlier missions, because he was so good at everything.”
However, there will be little time for the newcomers to adapt to their surroundings, for on 30 March SpaceX will launch the third dedicated Dragon cargo mission (SpX-3) under its $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. It is scheduled to be berthed, via the 57.7-foot (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm, onto the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Harmony node on 2 April. It will remain in place for about a month. A few days later, on 7 April, Russia’s Progress M-22M cargo ship will depart the ISS and shortly be replaced by the fresh Progress M-23M. Later in April, the Progress M-21M cargo ship, which has been docked at the station since November 2013, will undock for two days of tests of its Kurs-NA (“Course”) rendezvous and navigation systems. After redocking on 25 April, Progress M-21M will remain at the ISS until mid-June.
Three major events will occur in May. The first is the expected launch of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s second dedicated Cygnus cargo mission (ORB-2), under its $1.9 billion CRS contract with NASA, on the 6th. By now, the Harmony nadir location will have been vacated by SpX-3, and the Expedition 39 crew will again employ Canadarm2 to grapple Cygnus to berth it at the station for about five weeks. The second event is the planned return to Earth of Soyuz TMA-11M crewmen Wakata, Tyurin, and Mastracchio on 14 May, completing a mission of 188 days in space. Shortly before their departure, Wakata will formally hand command of the ISS over to Steve Swanson, who will take the helm of the new Expedition 40.
Two weeks later, on 28 May, Soyuz TMA-13M will launch with its crew of Russian cosmonaut Maksim Surayev, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, and Germany’s Alexander Gerst—the latter of whom is participating in the European Space Agency’s (ESA) “Blue Dot” mission—to bring Expedition 40 up to its full, six-man strength. The month of June is expected to feature the undocking and departure of both Progress M-21M and the ORB-2 Cygnus mission, with July highlighted by the expectation of two U.S. EVAs. According to NASASpaceflight.com, U.S. EVA-26 will involve Swanson and Wiseman and will take place on or around 10 July, with Wiseman and Gerst performing EVA-27 a week later on 17 July. Cosmonauts Skvortsov and Artemyev will perform Russian EVA-38 in August. Although Swanson is a veteran of four previous spacewalks—having racked up a cumulative 26 hours and 22 minutes in two excursions on each of his STS-117 and STS-119 shuttle missions, back in June 2007 and March 2009 respectively—Wiseman, Gerst, Skvortsov, and Artemyev have yet to savor the experience of EVA. At the time of writing, Surayev had not been manifested for an EVA during the Expedition 40 timeframe.
Russian cargo ships will perform a changeout in July, as Progress M-23M departs and Progress M-24M arrives, with ESA’s fifth and final Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV)-5 also planned for launch on 25 July. Named in honor of the Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître, ATV-5 will be boosted aloft by an Ariane 5 vehicle, whose “cryotechnic main stage” arrived at the Guiana Space Centre on Thursday, 20 March, for pre-launch processing. August is expected to see SpaceX’s fourth Dragon mission (SpX-4), and Expedition 40 will conclude on 11 September with the return of Skvortsov, Artemyev, and Swanson aboard Soyuz TMA-12M, touching down in Kazakhstan after a voyage lasting approximately 170 days. In leaving the ISS, Swanson will hand command of the space station over to Surayev, who will lead Expedition 41.
The three men scheduled to launch from Baikonur on Tuesday come from a wide variety of backgrounds and three different sovereign nations.
Nicknamed “Swanny,” 53-year-old Steven Ray Swanson was born on 3 December 1960 in Syracuse, N.Y. “It wasn’t one of my dreams growing up,” he told a NASA interviewer of his aspiration to become an astronaut. “It was more after graduate school.” An explorer at heart, he grew up in Colorado, with a love of the outdoors, exploring the woods and mountains and dreaming of joining past expeditions, like that of Lewis and Clark. He completed high school in Steamboat Springs, Colo.—the place he considers to be his hometown—in 1979 and entered the University of Colorado to study engineering physics. Upon receipt of his degree in 1983, Swanson pursued a master’s credential in computer systems from Florida Atlantic University. He worked for GTE in Phoenix, Ariz., as a software engineer, working on the real-time software of telephone system multiplexer/demultiplexers, then joined NASA as a systems engineer and flight engineer in the Aircraft Operations Division at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas.
“It was a wonderful place to work,” he explained, “working on airplanes, the software, the control systems. I really liked that.” Swanson’s specific responsibilities included enhancements to the navigation and control systems of the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA), a modified Grumman Gulfsteam-II business jet, whose controls were extensively modified to mimic the landing approach characteristics of the orbiter. Whilst at NASA, Swanson secured a fellowship to begin his doctoral coursework in computer science. “It took me a few years to get through with that, though,” he said, “and after many hours put into that thing I did finally finish it and that was a nice thing to get done.” He received his PhD from Texas A&M University in 1998, the same year he was selected into NASA’s astronaut corps as a shuttle mission specialist candidate. He flew aboard the 14-day STS-117 shuttle mission in June 2007, which installed the S-3 and S-4 truss segment and solar arrays onto the starboard side of the ISS, and performed two of the mission’s four EVAs. Less than two years later, in March 2009, Swanson served as chief spacewalker (“EV1”) on the 13-day STS-119 shuttle mission, which completed the installation of the ISS power grid with the S-6 truss and solar arrays. He performed two more EVAs on STS-119, bringing his cumulative total to 26 hours and 22 minutes.
Commanding Soyuz TMA-12M and serving as a flight engineer aboard Expedition 39-40 is 47-year-old Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Skvortsov, a veteran of one previous space mission. Born in Schelkovo, within the Moscow Region, on 6 May 1966, he was the son of cosmonaut Aleksandr Skvortsov. Although the elder Skvortsov had been selected as one of the Soviet Union’s early cosmonauts in May 1965, he never flew in space and departed the corps in early 1968. Like his father, the young Skvortsov grew up with a yearning for aviation and pursued a military career. “It’s basically our family tradition,” he told a NASA interviewer, “because I became a military pilot and my brother is a military pilot, too.” He graduated from the Stavropol Air Force Pilot and Navigator School as a pilot-engineer in 1987 and flew the L-39, MiG-23, and Su-27 aircraft as a pilot, senior pilot, and chief of aircraft formation.
Although admission into Russia’s exalted cosmonaut corps was a goal, Skvortsov was haunted somewhat by the experience of his father. “My father was a member of the cosmonaut corps,” he said, “not for too long, because he had health issues, but still I heard many good things about it and the idea of space has always been very strongly present in our family. When I saw this opportunity, I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to become a cosmonaut, because it’s very difficult to make it into the cosmonaut corps in Russia; the medical tests are very intensive.”
Selected into Russia’s cosmonaut corps in 1997, “specifically for the ISS,” Skvortsov served as the flight engineer aboard Expedition 23, launched toward the ISS in April 2010. He later commanded Expedition 24 and returned to Earth the following September, after 176 days in orbit. At the time of his retirement from the Russian Air Force in 2012, Skvortsov had reached the rank of colonel. A lover of spicy food, and a self-confessed maker of hot chili sauce, he admitted to having “finished off all the spicy ketchup stock on the ISS” and “shocked everyone by making and eating wasabi sandwiches,” considering them to be “my fuel, as good as a rocket!”
The final crew member aboard Soyuz TMA-12M will be 43-year-old Oleg Germanovich Artemyev, the sole “rookie.” Born on 28 December 1970 in Riga—then part of the Soviet Union, but today the capital of independent Latvia—his upbringing was multi-faceted. He studied at Tallinn Polytechnical School, graduating in 1990, and served with the Soviet Army in Vilnius, the capital of today’s independent Lithuania until 1991. This was a particularly tortuous time for Lithuania, which had declared its independence from the Soviet Union in March 1990, but which Premier Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to forcibly re-integrate into the Soviet sphere early the following year. Certainly, the young Oleg Artemyev would have seen and been involved in this difficult era of transition for both Lithuania and his ancestral homeland, Latvia, which achieved independence in March 1991. Selected as a cosmonaut in 2003, Artemyev served aboard the 15-day and 105-day precursor missions for the Mars-500 program, which have prepared him for the level of isolation he will experience as a crew member aboard Expedition 39-40.
For all three Soyuz TMA-12M crewmen, the upcoming expedition promises its own yield of untold riches. All three will hopefully participate in EVAs, all three will participate in the arrival and departure of several Visiting Vehicles, and all three will experience the peculiar microgravity environment—an environment which Steve Swanson loved on his two shuttle missions. “That was an amazing experience,” he said, “really hard to even describe.” Riga and Latvia will certainly bid their countryman Oleg Artemyev farewell and smooth sailing as he embarks on the first mission of his cosmonaut career. And maybe Aleksandr Skvortsov will raid the ISS pantry at some point for spicy ketchups to make meals for his crewmates. In an interview, Steve Swanson was philosophical about space exploration: “I do like doing outdoors,” he said. “Maybe helps in spacewalks, you know, going for a big hike outside in inclement weather.” On Expedition 39-40, his “big hike” will undoubtedly be his grandest adventure so far—an adventure of which Lewis and Clark would be justifiably proud.
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I don’t know what the big deal is about doing a four orbit, six hour rendezvous. Gemini was doing that back in 1965-66. Gemini 11 even did one in less then an orbit from launch to docking. Nice it took the Russians almost 50 years to catch up.
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