Three new crew members will arrive at the International Space Station (ISS) late Wednesday (28 May), just six hours after their launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Soyuz TMA-13M is scheduled to depart the historic Site 1/5—the same location from which Yuri Gagarin began his historic mission, more than 53 years ago— at 3:57:42 p.m. EDT Wednesday (1:57:42 a.m. local time Thursday). On-board the spacecraft will be Russian cosmonaut Maksim Surayev, making his second space flight, together with first-timers U.S. astronaut Reid Wiseman and Germany’s Alexander Gerst, who represents the European Space Agency (ESA). After docking at the ISS at about 9:47 p.m. EDT Wednesday (7:47 a.m. local Kazakh time Thursday), the hatches will be opened and Surayev, Wiseman, and Gerst will form the second half of the incumbent Expedition 40 crew, joining Commander Steve Swanson of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev, who have been aboard the station since late March.
The Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft comprises three main segments—from the base, a cylindrical instrument and propulsion module, a bell-shaped descent module, and a spheroidal orbital module—and arrived at Baikonur in early March to commence pre-flight inspections and evaluations, firstly in the Spacecraft Assembly and Testing Facility and subsequently, in late April, in the vacuum chamber for leak checks and radio interference testing. It was loaded with approximately 1,760 pounds (800 kg) of unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants for its propulsion system, together with helium pressurant and oxygen and nitrogen gases for the environmental control system. On 19 May, back in the Spacecraft Assembly and Testing Facility, Soyuz TMA-13M was attached to its payload adapter and installed into its payload shroud two days later. Elsewhere, the assembly of the giant Soyuz-FG booster which will deliver the spacecraft and its crew into orbit was completed in the Launcher Integration Building, and on Saturday, 24 May, the encapsulated Soyuz TMA-13M arrived and was installed atop the booster.
Following standard electrical and mechanical checks, the Russian State Commission met Sunday, 25 May, to review the status of the mission, and the complete vehicle was rolled horizontally to the Site 1/5 complex early Monday.
In their final weeks “on the planet,” Surayev, Wiseman, and Gerst completed their training, as well as immersed themselves in traditions. On 8 May, they visited the Kremlin Wall in Moscow to ceremonially place flowers at the interment site of Yuri Gagarin. Seven days later—and just 24 hours after the return to Earth of Soyuz TMA-11M crewmen Mikhail Tyurin, Rick Mastracchio, and Koichi Wakata—the new crew of Surayev, Wiseman, and Gerst flew from the Star City cosmonauts’ training center, on the outskirts of Moscow, to desolate Baikonur. They were joined by their backups, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, U.S. astronaut Terry Virts, and Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti, who are currently targeted to fly the Soyuz TMA-15M mission to the ISS in late November 2014.
At Baikonur, the prime and backup crews performed a traditional tree-planting ceremony and reviewed flight procedures and Surayev, Wiseman, and Gerst boarded Soyuz TMA-13M in the actual “Sokol” (“Falcon”) suits that they will wear for ascent and re-entry. They also checked their custom-molded seat liners in the descent module. In her online training logbook, Cristoforetti wrote that “this assembly of metal and electronics will bring our friends to space … their lives will depend on it functioning properly.” She added that “we really focused on moving carefully and deliberately to avoid any incident. It’s a very cramped space and entering from ‘above’ from the orbital module is obviously a lot more cumbersome than using the ‘fake’ side hatch we have in the Star City simulators.”
Tomorrow (Wednesday) promises to be a long day for Surayev, Wiseman, and Gerst. If all goes according to plan, they will awaken at Baikonur Cosmodrome in the morning and go to sleep aboard the ISS late on the evening. Since March 2013, Russia has endeavored to deliver Soyuz crews to the station in just six hours, and four orbits of Earth, in order to alleviate pressure on the crew. Previous missions had typically followed two-day-long rendezvous profiles, which were more economical in terms of propellant expenditure, but which also tended to be highly cramped, stressful, and exacerbated nausea and motion sickness for the crew. Although hugely complex, a process was developed to get them to the ISS more quickly. First trialed by an unmanned Progress resupply craft in August 2012, the six-hour, four-orbit rendezvous and docking plan was successfully executed by four Soyuz crews last year and would have been performed by Soyuz TMA-12M in March, but for a malfunction shortly after orbital insertion. This forced the crew to revert to the standard two-day, 34-orbit approach profile, which was completed successfully.
“Same-day” rendezvous and docking are nothing new. In September 1966, Gemini XI astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad and Dick Gordon accomplished a rendezvous and docking with an Agena target vehicle just 85 minutes and a single orbit after launch. Several years later, during the Skylab era, crews typically followed an expedited rendezvous profile lasting just eight or nine hours to reach their home in space. However, since the late 1970s, in the interests of propellant economy, most crews—including shuttle-Mir and ISS crews—have spent between one and two days in transit, prior to docking.
NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, a member of the Soyuz TMA-08M crew which performed the first piloted six-hour “fast rendezvous” to the ISS in March 2013, described it as exciting. “The interesting thing from a human point of view is we don’t have time to take off our space suits, so we’ll be strapped into our seats for the whole duration of that six-hour period, plus the pre-launch activities,” he said. “It’ll be a long day and a lot of time in the suits.”
About four hours ahead of tomorrow’s launch, Surayev, Wiseman, and Gerst will be helped into their Sokol launch and entry suits and should be ensconced in their specially contoured seats aboard the Soyuz TMA-13M descent module at the pad about two hours later. In those final hours, their launch vehicle—a descendent of Sergei Korolev’s R-7 rocket, an early version of which carried Yuri Gagarin into space—will undergo final checks, culminating in the conclusion of fueling and the implemention of the flight program software. Ten minutes before launch, the three men will be instructed to close their visors. A minute before liftoff, the rocket will transition to internal power and at T-10 seconds the engine turbopumps will attain full speed. By five seconds, the engines themselves will reach maximum thrust, leading to the retraction of the launch pad’s fueling tower and an on-time liftoff into the darkened Baikonur sky at 1:57:42 a.m. local time Thursday (3:57:42 p.m. EDT Wednesday). This will kick off the second half of ISS Expedition 40.
Within a minute of clearing the tower, the rocket will be traveling at more than 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h), and at T+118 seconds the four tapering strap-on boosters will be jettisoned, leaving the core stage alone to complete the push into low-Earth orbit. By the two-minute mark, Surayev, Wiseman, and Gerst will surpass 3,350 mph (5,390 km/h), and, shortly thereafter, the escape tower and launch shroud will separate, exposing Soyuz TMA-13M to vacuum for the first time. Four minutes and 58 seconds after leaving the desolate steppe of Central Asia, the core booster will be separated at an altitude of 105.6 statute miles (170 km) and the third and final stage ignited, boosting the Soyuz to a velocity of more than 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h). By the time the third stage separates, nine minutes into the flight, Surayev, Wiseman, and Gerst will enter an orbit of about 124 x 163 miles (199 x 262 km), inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator, and can begin the process of deploying their craft’s communications and navigation antennas and solar arrays.
Four maneuvering “burns” will be required to raise the apogee of their orbit to reach the ISS operational altitude of about 255 x 258 miles (411 x 416 km). The first, 84-second burn (DV-1) should take place 45 minutes into the mission, followed by the second, 64-second burn (DV-2), which occurred 90 minutes after launch. These will be followed by a second pair of burns, later in the rendezvous sequence, which should position Soyuz TMA-13M for an on-time docking at the station’s Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module at 9:47 p.m. EDT Wednesday (7:47 a.m. local Kazakh time Thursday), about five hours and 50 minutes after liftoff. Alexander Gerst, who will become Germany’s 11th astronaut and only its second long-duration space station resident, and is flying as part of a European Space Agency (ESA) expedition, dubbed “Blue Dot,” has already noted on Twitter that his first task aboard the ISS will be changing the station’s toilet urine receptacle. …
Surayev, Wiseman, and Gerst will spend 166 days in space and are expected to return to Earth and land in central Kazakhstan on 10 November. They will initially form the second half of Expedition 40, under Steve Swanson’s command, and a busy mission lies ahead of them. According to the schedule of ISS Visiting Vehicles over the next few months, they should be on hand to welcome no less than two Orbital Sciences Corp. Cygnus cargo missions in June and October, one SpaceX Dragon cargo mission in August and ESA’s fifth and final Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-5), named in honor of Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître, also in August. They will also bid farewell to two Russian resupply craft, Progress M-21M on 10 June and Progress M-23M on 22 July, and welcome the arrivals of Progress M-24M in late July and Progress M-25M in late October. With this traffic alone, it promises to be a “hot and heavy” summer and fall aboard the ISS.
Added to the mix will be a full-up schedule of EVAs from both the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) and the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS). Two Russian spacewalks are planned in June and August, involving Aleksandr Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev, as well as two U.S. spacewalks, both in mid-to-late July, the first of which will feature Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman and the second with Wiseman and Alexander Gerst. Since a dramatic incident of water intrusion entering Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano’s helmet during a July 2013 EVA, all planned U.S. spacewalks have officially been suspended, pending investigation. However, in December 2013 and April 2014, three contingency EVAs were performed outside the USOS to remove and replace critical equipment which had suffered failure. It is the expectation that all remaining issues surrounding the U.S. space suits will have been closed out in time for this summer’s planned EVAs by Swanson, Wiseman, and Gerst.
Early in September, Swanson will relinquish command of the ISS to Surayev, who will take the helm of the station and officially begin Expedition 41. On 11 September, Swanson, Skvortsov, and Artemyev will board their Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft and return to Earth, touching down in Kazakhstan after 170 days in orbit. Surayev, Wiseman, and Gerst will remain aboard the ISS as a three-member crew for two weeks, before Soyuz TMA-14M launches on 25 September with the second half of Expedition 41: Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev and Yelena Serova—the latter of whom will become only the fourth female Russian spacefarer in history and the first female cosmonaut to enter space since May 1997—together with NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore. The six-member crew will support several launches and undockings in October-November, as well as an EVA by Surayev and Samokutyayev, which is expected to be the only spacewalk of Expedition 41. Current planning anticipates Surayev, Wiseman, and Gerst to undock Soyuz TMA-13M from Rassvet and land in Kazakhstan on 10 November after 166 days in space.
Flying under the callsign of “Cepheus,” the Soyuz TMA-13M crew are a relatively inexperienced team. Only 42-year-old Maksim Viktorovich Surayev, who will command both the Soyuz and later Expedition 41, has flown before. Born on 24 May 1972 in Chelyabinsk, about 210 miles (130 km) south of Yekaterinburg—a place infamous as the scene of the murder of the last tsar and his family—on the very border of Europe and Asia, Surayev grew up the son of a military father and moved around a great deal in his childhood, including to Siberia and to Moscow. He graduated with honors from the Kacha Air Force Pilot School in 1994 as a pilot-engineer and later from the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy in 1997 as a pilot-engineer-researcher. Fully qualified as a diver and a paraborne instructor and a veteran of the L-39 and Su-27 aircraft, Surayev entered Russia’s cosmonaut corps in July 1997 and completed two years of basic training. He earned a law degree from the Russian Academy of Civil Service in 2007. Surayev later served as a member of the ISS Expedition 17 and 19 backup crews and in September 2009 commanded the Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft, joined by U.S. astronaut Jeff Williams and Canadian Cirque du Soleil founder and chief executive Guy Laliberté. Although millionaire “space tourist” Laliberté returned to Earth after 11 days, Surayev and Williams remained aboard the ISS until the late spring of 2010, firstly as the second half of Expedition 21 and later as the core crew of Expedition 22. During this time, in January 2010, he performed an EVA with fellow cosmonaut Oleg Kotov. Surayev and Williams landed in Kazakhstan on 18 March 2010, after 169 days in orbit.
Thirty-eight-year-old Gregory Reid Wiseman, a commander in the U.S. Navy, will be the second member of NASA’s 2009 astronaut class—nicknamed “The Chumps”—to fly into space, launching just ten weeks after the return to Earth of his classmate, Expedition 37/38’s Mike Hopkins. Wiseman was born in Baltimore, Md., on 11 November 1975 and graduated from high school in the suburb of Timonium, before entering Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y., to pursue a degree in engineering. Upon receipt of his degree in 1997, he joined the Navy, undertook flight instruction in Pensacola, Fla., and was designated a Naval Aviator in 1999. Initially based at Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., Wiseman trained on the F-14 Tomcat fighter and made two deployments to the Middle East in support of Operations Southern Watch, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom. Upon his return to the United States, he entered U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md., and graduated in 2004, then worked as a test pilot and project officer on various programs involving the F-35 Lightning II, F-18 weapons separation, ship suitability trials, and the T-45 Goshawk. Wiseman earned a master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., in 2006, and was later deployed by the Navy to South America and back to Naval Air Station Oceana, flying the F/A-18F Super Hornet. He was deployed in the Middle East when selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in June 2009.
The final member of the Soyuz TMA-13M crew is 38-year-old Alexander Gerst, who will become Germany’s 11th astronaut and only the second of his countrymen (after Thomas Reiter) to embark on a long-duration space voyage of more than a month. During Expedition 40, he will also become the third German—after Reiter and Hans Schlegel—to perform an EVA, wearing the black, red, and gold tricolor of his homeland on the arm of his space suit. Born on 3 May 1976 in the town of Künzelsau, within the state of Baden-Württemberg in south-central Germany, Gerst completed Technical High School in 1995. As a youth, he had volunteered as a Boy Scout leader, firefighter, and water-rescue lifeguard, and, during his years as an undergraduate and postgraduate, he participated in various international expeditions, including Antarctica. Gerst earned a degree in geophysics from the University of Karlsruhe and later a master’s credential in Earth sciences from the Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. It was whilst researching for his master’s thesis in volcanic eruption dynamics in New Zealand that Gerst developed a new monitoring technique to improve forecasting of these often cataclysmic events. The results of his research were published in the journal Science. He worked specifically on active volcanoes on all continents, in order to determine the mechanics and energy released during the first few seconds of an eruption. In 2010, a year after his selection by ESA, Gerst completed his doctorate in natural sciences at the University of Hamburg’s Institute of Geophysics, with a focus on geophysics and volcanic eruption dynamics. A keen diver, mountaineer, and skydiver, Gerst’s skills will undoubtedly be challenged during Expedition 40/41, his highest adventure to date.