Expedition 41—the current human increment aboard the International Space Station (ISS)—has expanded from three to six members, with last night’s safe arrival of Soyuz TMA-14M and its crew of Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev and Yelena Serova, together with U.S. astronaut Barry Wilmore. The trio launched from Site 1/5 at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, precisely on time, at 2:25 a.m. local time Friday, 26 September (4:25 p.m. EDT Thursday, 25 September), embarking on a six-hour, four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile to dock with the ISS at 8:11 a.m. Baikonur time Friday (10:11 p.m. EDT Thursday). However, all did not go entirely to plan, following the failure of one of Soyuz TMA-14M’s electricity-generating solar arrays to deploy properly.
The crew was awakened approximately 8.5 hours ahead of the scheduled launch. They showered and were disinfected, after which microbial samples were taken as part of the scientific experiments to be undertaken in orbit. Breakfast was followed by a departure from Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel and the traditional blessing by a Russian Orthodox priest. Samokutyayev, Serova, and Wilmore were then bussed out to Site 254, where they submitted to final medical checks and donned their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits and had the last opportunity to speak to their families, face-to-face, albeit from behind glass screens. By 11:30 p.m. local time (1:30 p.m. EDT) Thursday, the crew had departed Site 254, bound for the launch pad and their waiting Soyuz-FG booster.
Pausing briefly to wave to well-wishers, the crew promptly ascended the stairs to the hatch of Soyuz TMA-14M. The two flight engineers were first to board, with Serova taking her Flight Engineer-1 position on the left side of the cabin and Wilmore assuming the Flight Engineer-2 seat on the right. Shortly afterwards, they were joined by Samokutyayev in the center commander’s berth.
The Soyuz-FG is a descendent of Sergei Korolev’s R-7 vehicle, an early version of which carried Yuri Gagarin into space, and had been fully fueled with a mixture of liquid oxygen and a refined form of rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) by T-3 hours. After loading, the liquid oxygen entered a “topping mode,” whereby all cryogenic boil-off was rapidly replenished until shortly before launch. This ensured that the tanks were kept at “Flight Ready” levels, preparatory to the ignition of the RD-108 engine of the first stage and the RD-107 engines of the four tapering strap-on boosters.
In the final 15 minutes, the Launch Abort System (LAS) was armed and transferred to Automatic Mode, and at T-5 minutes Commander Samokutyayev’s controls were activated and the crew was instructed to close their visors. Internal avionics were initiated and the on-board flight recorders were spooled-up to monitor the rocket’s systems throughout the ascent into low-Earth orbit. Inside the control bunker, the “launch key”—an actual, physical key—was inserted to enable to ordnance to support Soyuz TMA-14M on its voyage and was followed by the completion of nitrogen purging, the pressurization of the fuel tanks, and the continued topping of cryogens.
At T-10 seconds, the turbopumps on the central core of the rocket and the tapering boosters came to life and the engines were confirmed at full power. This produced a retraction of the fueling tower and a perfect, on-time liftoff into the darkened Baikonur sky at 2:25 a.m. local time Friday (4:25 p.m. EDT Thursday).
In addition to hundreds of spectators, and many thousands more watching online, the Expedition 41 crew of Maksim Surayev, Reid Wiseman, and Alexander Gerst also managed to catch a glimpse from orbit of Soyuz TMA-14M’s rousing ascent. Unfortunately, they lost sight of it behind the just-arrived CRS-4 Dragon cargo ship. “Woo hoo! Houston, that looked like a good ride!” exulted Wiseman. “We got to see about the first 30 seconds and then lost the Soyuz behind the Dragon, but we are happy to be watching NASA TV and see you guys safely in orbit and we’ll have dinner waitin’ for ’em.”
Rising rapidly, the rocket was traveling at more than 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h) within a minute of clearing the tower, and at T+118 seconds the four tapering boosters were jettisoned, leaving the core stage alone to continue the boost into low-Earth orbit. By the two-minute mark, Samokutyayev, Serova, and Wilmore surpassed 3,350 mph (5,390 km/h), and, shortly thereafter, the escape tower and launch shroud separated, exposing Soyuz TMA-14M 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 (170 km) and the third and final stage ignited, accelerating the Soyuz to a velocity of more than 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h). By the time the third stage separated, nine minutes into the flight, Samokutyayev, Serova, and Wilmore entered an orbit of about 125.1 x 159.9 miles (201.25 x 257.33 km), inclined 51.65 degrees to the equator and began the process of deploying their craft’s communications and navigation antennas and solar arrays.
According to Spaceflight101, this apogee of this orbit was about 9.3 miles (15 km) higher than the original target, but was within the +/- 26-mile (42 km) tolerance. However, shortly after achieving orbit, problems first began to brew. The port-side solar array had failed to unfurl, forcing flight controllers to rely upon Soyuz TMA-14M’s batteries to pick up the power shortfall and support the four-orbit rendezvous regime. This was deemed acceptable, although had further difficulties arisen—such as a cancellation of the fast-rendezvous, in favor of a standard, 34-orbit profile, as experienced by Soyuz TMA-12M, following a software issue in March—the power levels would have been of greater concern.
Telemetry indicated that the stubborn array’s deployment mechanism had been actuated and it was hoped that the four maneuvering “burns,” designed to raise Soyuz TMA-14M’s apogee to reach the ISS operational altitude, might jolt it open. Forty-three minutes after leaving Baikonur, the 68-second first burn (DV-1) got underway, followed by a 39-second follow-up burn (DV-2) at 84 minutes into the flight. Both burns were executed without incident, but the reported that the port array had not unfurled.
Nonetheless, the crew and Mission Control pressed ahead with the third and fourth (DV-3 and DV-4) burns, whose computations had to be adjusted in response to the slight overperformance of the booster. Both burns were performed without incident during Soyuz TMA-14M’s second orbit of Earth, positioning the spacecraft in an orbit a little higher than 186 miles (300 km). This allowed Soyuz TMA-14M to begin its Automated Rendezvous Sequence at about 6 a.m. Baikonur time Friday (8 p.m. EDT Thursday).
Approaching the ISS, Samokutyayev reported to Expedition 41 Commander Maksim Surayev—who was watching the rendezvous with his crewmates, U.S. astronaut Reid Wiseman and Germany’s Alexander Gerst—that the port-side solar array remained down. However, Samokutyayev achieved a perfect docking with the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module at 8:11 a.m. Baikonur time Friday (10:11 p.m. EDT Thursday), some five hours and 46 minutes after launch. At the time of docking, the two spacecraft were passing about 248.5 miles (400 km) above the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of South America. More good news came when it became apparent that the stubborn solar array had jolted itself open, probably due to the force imparted at docking, at 8:49 a.m. Baikonur time Friday (10:49 p.m. EDT Thursday).
Following standard pressure checks, the hatches between Soyuz TMA-14M and the rest of the ISS were opened at 11:06 a.m. Baikonur time (1:06 a.m. EDT) Friday, and Samokutyayev, Serova, and Wilmore were engulfed in hugs from Surayev, Wiseman, and Gerst, who have been aboard the station since 28 May.
At the time of the Soyuz TMA-14M docking, the space station accommodated a number of other uncrewed visiting vehicles: Russia’s Progress M-24M, which has been in place at the nadir port of the Pirs module since late July, Europe’s fifth and final Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-5), which has been attached to the Zvezda service module’s aft longitudinal port since August, and SpaceX’s fourth dedicated Dragon cargo mission (CRS-4), which was launched successfully on Sunday, 21 September, and which was berthed at the nadir port of the Harmony node on Tuesday, 23 September.
Interestingly, as described in AmericaSpace’s CRS-4 preview article, the Dragon mission transported two critical Long Life Batteries (LLBs) to the space station for the U.S. Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) space suits. Another pair of batteries were also carried aboard Soyuz TMA-14M itself, enabling Wiseman, Gerst, and Wilmore to conduct a pair of EVAs in October. These spacewalks were originally planned for August, but were deferred when a failure was discovered in one of the lithium-ion LLBs already aboard the ISS. “All electrical parts in the life-support system … are burned-in,” explained AmericaSpace Editor Jim Hillhouse. “Since all LLB fuses use the same burn-in procedure and test setup, the concern was that other long-life batteries could have the same problem. In early August, the [Expedition 40] crew began removing the LLBs from the on-board EMUs to be returned to the ground.”
Current planning envisages that the first EVA will involve Wiseman and Gerst and will occur no sooner than 7 October. Although both astronauts have been in orbit for four months of a planned 5.5-month expedition, both are currently on the first space missions and neither has previously performed a spacewalk. Consequently, this will be the first occasion since September 2008—and the inaugural Chinese EVA by crewmen Zhai Zhigang and Liu Boming—that a pair of first-time spacefarers have embarked together on their first career spacewalks, without a veteran comrade in attendance.
From a U.S. spacewalking perspective, it has been even longer. Not since August 2007, and the opening STS-118 spacewalk by Rick Mastracchio and Dave Williams, have two first-time EVA crewmen ventured outside together. The 7 October spacewalk will also make Gerst only the third German citizen, after his fellow countrymen Thomas Reiter and Hans Schlegel, to participate in an EVA. The second spacewalk is scheduled for 15 October and will involve Wiseman and Wilmore. Having previously flown on STS-129 in November 2009, this will make Wilmore than first shuttle pilot to undertake an EVA since Ken Bowersox on Expedition Six in April 2003.
U.S. EVA plans have remained in flux since 16 July 2013, when Italian spacewalker Luca Parmitano suffered water intrusion into his helmet during EVA-23. Although a pair of contingency spacewalks were undertaken in December 2013, followed by another in April 2014, a return to normal operations had to await the results of the EVA-23 Mishap Investigation Board (MIB). In February 2014, the board described Parmitano’s water intrusion incident as a “High Visibility Close Call,” and after corrective actions it was expected that the EMUs would be cleared for “standard” spacewalks in the July-August timeframe. The LLB issue postponed this resumption of operations yet further.
The Russians, meanwhile, have supported no less than three EVAs to date in 2014. A fourth is planned for 21 October, involving cosmonauts Surayev and Samokutyayev. One of their key tasks will be to install experiments onto the exterior of the Russian Segment to collect samples of space dust for analysis of microbial development.
Assuming a successful berthing of SpaceX’s CRS-4 Dragon, this cargo ship is expected to remain at the ISS until mid-October and will be robotically detached on the 18th for its return to Earth. This will be followed by the launch of the third dedicated Cygnus cargo mission (ORB-3), atop an Antares booster from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va. Presently scheduled to fly no earlier than 19 October, ORB-3 will continue a series of cargo delivery traffic by SpaceX and Orbital, who are both recipients of multi-billion-dollar Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts from NASA. With an on-time launch, it is anticipated that the ORB-3 Cygnus should be robotically grappled by the station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm on 22 October and berthed at the Harmony nadir interface.
Unlike Dragon, however, Cygnus is not designed to be recovered after its mission. It will be loaded with trash and unneeded equipment, unberthed on 28 November and deliberately destroyed in the upper atmosphere. Three days later, on 1 December, the fifth Dragon mission (CRS-5) will launch atop a Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and should berth at the Harmony nadir after about 48 hours in flight. It will remain in place until the second week of January, prior to being robotically detached and returned to Earth. Yet another Dragon (CRS-6) is tentatively planned for launch in early February 2015 and, like its predecessors, will spend about a month in residence at the ISS.
Dovetailed into these plans, Russia will also detach its Progress M-24M cargo craft from the space station on 27 October, leaving the Pirs port open for the arrival of Progress M-25M, which is due to rise from Baikonur on 29 October. Whereas Dragon and Cygnus both typically follow two-day rendezvous profiles, Progress (like Soyuz) will embark on a six-hour, four-orbit regime, docking at the ISS shortly after leaving Earth. Later, on 25 January, Europe’s ATV-5 spacecraft will depart from Zvezda’s aft longitudinal port—after almost six months in space—and be deorbited. Its place will be taken on 3 February by Progress M-26M, which will remain in place until August.
In addition to the unpiloted ISS operations, a change of crew members is currently planned for November, with the Soyuz TMA-13M team of Surayev, Wiseman, and Gerst expected to depart on the 10th after 166 days in orbit and the new Russian-U.S.-Italian trio of Anton Shkaplerov, Terry Virts, and Samantha Cristoforetti scheduled to launch from Baikonur and arrive aboard Soyuz TMA-15M on the 24th. Both spacecraft will depart from and arrive at the station’s Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module.
With the departure of Soyuz TMA-13M, command of the ISS will pass to Wilmore, who will lead the new Expedition 42 from November until March 2015. Together with Samokutyayev and Serova, he will function for two weeks as a three-member crew, ahead of the arrival of Shkaplerov, Virts, and Cristoforetti, the latter of whom will become Italy’s first woman in space and bring with her the first space-rated espresso coffee machine. This will expand Expedition 42 to its full, six-person strength, and, with two women aboard—Russia’s Serova and Italy’s Cristoforetti—it will mark only the second occasion on which as many as two female Expedition members have been aboard the ISS simultaneously. The first time that this happened was on Expedition 24 in the summer of 2010, involving U.S. astronauts Tracy Caldwell-Dyson and Shannon Walker.
Pushing beyond Christmas and into 2015, a pair of U.S. EVAs are planned to be conducted by Wilmore and Virts in the January-February timeframe. During a pre-flight press conference in July, Wilmore explained that he and Virts would be “the cable guys,” responsible for routing power cables, umbilicals, and utilities in readiness for the delivery and installation, later in 2015, of two ISS Docking Adapters (IDAs) aboard CRS Dragon missions to support Commercial Crew operations from 2017. Last week, Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts totaling $6.8 billion to develop their CST-100 and Dragon V2 vehicles to return U.S. astronauts to space from U.S. soil for the first time since the end of the shuttle era. In his recent Expedition 42/43 press conference, Virts added that another EVA task would tend to the 57.7-foot-long (17.4-meter) Canadarm2. “This arm has been there for over ten years,” he explained, “and it’s getting a little sticky, so we’re going to have to go outside and put some grease on it.”
In addition to their ISS maintenance tasks, the crew will support hundreds of scientific experiments and technology demonstrations, including seedling growth, observations of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere, and studies of animal biology and bone and muscle physiology. The Biological Research in Canisters (BRIC)-19 will focus upon the development of Arabidopsis thaliana—a small, flowering plant, related to cabbage—as part of efforts to better understand the growth phenomenon in microgravity. Elsewhere, the Meteor Composition Determination experiment will use high-resolution video and image analysis of the atmosphere to ascertain the physical and chemical properties of meteors and other studies will center upon muscle mass in 18 zebrafish. This tropical freshwater fish belongs to the minnow family, and part of its reason for inclusion aboard Expedition 41/42 is to better understand the extent of muscle weakening in microgravity.
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