All-Air Force Crew From Three Nations Ready for Launch to Space Station (Part 2)

At the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, Expedition 42/43 prime crew members Terry Virts of NASA (left), Anton Shkaplerov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos, center) and Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency (right) pose for pictures following a news conference Nov. 6. Virts, Cristoforetti and Shkaplerov will launch Nov. 24, Kazakh time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on their Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft for a 5 ½ month mission on the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA/Stephanie Stoll​
At the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, Expedition 42/43 prime crew members Terry Virts of NASA (left), Anton Shkaplerov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos, center), and Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency (right) pose for pictures following a news conference Nov. 6. Virts, Cristoforetti, and Shkaplerov will launch Nov. 24, Kazakh time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on their Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft for a 5 ½ month mission on the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA/Stephanie Stoll​

Two weeks after the 9 November return to Earth of Soyuz TMA-13M, a new three-member crew will launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:01 a.m. local time Monday, 24 November (4:01 p.m. EST Sunday, 23 November), bound for a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, U.S. astronaut Terry Virts, and Italy’s first female spacefarer, Samantha Cristoforetti, will embark on a now-standard six-hour, four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile and should be in position to dock their Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft at the station’s Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module at 9:53 p.m. EST Sunday. After confirming the integrity of seals between the two vehicles, hatches will be opened at about 11:30 p.m., whereupon the new arrivals will be greeted by the incumbent Expedition 42 crew of U.S. astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev and Yelena Serova, who have been aboard the orbital outpost since 25 September.

“We’re a little bit of a unique crew,” Virts told his audience at a September press conference, held at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, “because we’re an all-Air Force crew and that got reflected a little bit in our Soyuz patch.” The patch illustrates the view of Earth, Soyuz TMA-15M, and the ISS, as seen through the attitude indicator on a Head-Up Display (HUD). It highlights the artificial horizon and its orientation is indicative of the spacecraft’s orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees to the equator, coupled with a “bank” angle of 15 degrees to offer a nod to their Soyuz TMA-15M vehicle. It also includes the superimposed shadow of an aircraft on Earth’s surface, which is a mixture of the different parts of winged vehicles flown by the three crew members during their military careers: Shkaplerov flew MiG-29s in the Russian Air Force, Virts flew F-16s in the U.S. Air Force, and Cristoforetti flew the AMX ground-attack aircraft in the Italian Air Force.

The Soyuz-FG booster, bearing the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft, is raised the vertical after rollout on Friday, 21 November. Photo Credit: NASA
The Soyuz-FG booster, bearing the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft, is raised the vertical after rollout on Friday, 21 November. Photo Credit: NASA

Commanding Soyuz TMA-15M, and serving as a flight engineer during Expedition 42/43, is Russian Air Force Colonel Anton Nikolayevich Shkaplerov, born in the naval city of Sevastopol, within the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, on 20 February 1972. “It’s a beautiful white town, because most of the old buildings are made of white stones,” he told a NASA interviewer. “The water is wonderful. I spent my whole childhood on the beach, playing with my friends. It was a great time and I was always surrounded by the military. My dad worked on a submarine and the whole town lived for the navy and by the way of the navy and I would always see officers around me, in uniform. I wanted to be like them.”

Undoubtedly, Shkaplerov’s upbringing in this military environment drew him towards a similar career for himself, with the eventual goal of someday becoming a cosmonaut. At the age of 17, he completed Yak-52 flight instruction at the Sevastopol Aviation Club and upon graduation from high school he entered the Kachinsk Air Force Pilot School, from which he emerged in 1994 with the credentials of a pilot-engineer. By his own admission, he always loved mathematics, physics, and physical training and as a non-drinker and non-smoker he always took his health seriously. Shkaplerov later completed the N.E. Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy in 1997 and served as a senior pilot-instructor in the Russian Air Force, based at Kubinka Air Force Base, near Moscow. For the next six years, he flew the L-29 training aircraft and later the MiG-29 multi-role jet fighter and, as an instructor in General Parachute Training, undertook more than 300 jumps.

Anton Shkaplerov spent 165 days in orbit in November 2011-April 2012. This will be his second space mission. Photo Credit: NASA
Anton Shkaplerov spent 165 days in orbit in November 2011-April 2012. This will be his second space mission. Photo Credit: NASA

Shkaplerov was selected for cosmonaut training in May 2003, alongside Aleksandr Samokutyayev and Mark Serov, the husband of Yelena Serova, who he will soon join aboard Expedition 42. Following two years of basic training, Shkaplerov was qualified as a test cosmonaut in June 2005 and later served as the Russian Space Agency’s director of operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, from April-October 2007. Together with U.S. astronaut Doug Wheelock and Japan’s Satoshi Furukawa, he was assigned to the backup crew of Soyuz TMA-17, which flew from December 2009-June 2010. Shkaplerov next served on the backup crew for Soyuz TMA-21, which took place in April-September 2011, before launching on his first space mission aboard Soyuz TMA-22 in November 2011. He served as the commander of the spacecraft and with his crewmates, U.S. astronaut Dan Burbank and fellow Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Ivanishin, briefly joined Expedition 29 crewmen Mike Fossum, Sergei Volkov, and Satoshi Furukawa, before the latter returned to Earth. Burbank, Shkaplerov, and Ivanishin then formed the “core” of the new Expedition 30, which was expanded to six members in December 2011 with the arrival of Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, NASA’s Don Pettit, and European astronaut Andre Kuipers of the Netherlands.

During his five months aboard the ISS, Shkaplerov performed a single EVA on 16 February 2012, with Kononenko. The duo spent six hours and 15 minutes in the vacuum of space, relocating the Strela cargo crane, jettisoning multi-layered insulation and installing experiments and recovering material samples. He returned to Earth, alongside Burbank and Ivanishin, on 27 April 2012, landing safely in Kazakhstan after 165 days in orbit and 2,580 orbits of the Home Planet. Returning to space, 2.5 years later, Soyuz TMA-15M represents Shkaplerov’s second long-duration ISS mission and, assuming it runs to its expected length, will leave him with a cumulative total of 334 days in orbit. This will place him within the top 40 on the list of most experienced spacefarers of all time. Present plans do not call for Shkaplerov to perform a spacewalk during his second expedition, although he has trained extensively in the hydrolab at the Star City training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, to support any contingency EVA operations.

Seated to Shkaplerov’s right side aboard Soyuz TMA-15M is U.S. Air Force Colonel Terry Wayne Virts, selected as a NASA astronaut in July 2000 and veteran of STS-130, the shuttle mission which delivered the Tranquility node and the multi-windowed cupola into orbit and attached them to the ISS. Born in Baltimore, Md., on 1 December 1967, he grew up playing baseball, golf, football and lacrosse. He spent his formative years in Columbia and completed his secondary education at Oakland Mills High School. “Education was very much emphasized by my parents,” he recalled. “I was just expected to do well at school and that really helps you out when you’re a kid, to have parents that force you to focus on education, and the school I went to had great teachers. It’s easy to get distracted when you’re a teenager and I was kept on track pretty well by that environment.” Moreover, both of his parents worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the desire to someday become an astronaut was very real for him.

Virts entered the Air Force Academy to study mathematics, with a minor in French, and earned his bachelor’s degree in 1989. During the course of his studies, he had the opportunity to attend the École de l’Air in Salon-de-Provence, France, for one semester, on an exchange program. “I had taken a lot of French in junior high and in high school,” he explained. “That was the language that was really emphasized there.” However, surrounded by very few U.S. cadets, Virts was immersed in a very different culture. “They really emphasize flying,” he said, “so I got a chance to fly some of their different Mirage jets and Alpha jets, which was a lot of fun. Spending all day in French—in any foreign language—is tough, and so that was a good experience.”

Upon graduation from the Air Force Academy, Virts entered active military service as a second lieutenant and earned his pilot’s wings at Williams Air Force Base in Mesa, Ariz., before commencing jet fighter instruction at Holloman Air Force Base, near Alamogordo, N.M. He then undertook formal training on the F-16 with the 56th Tactical Fighter Wing at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., and was later assigned to the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing at Homestead Air Force Base, near Homestead, Fla. His squadron was later moved to Moody Air Force Base, close to Valdosta, Ga., following the devastation wreaked in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew, and later served in South Korea and Germany from 1993-1998.

Terry Virts prepares for an EVA simulator in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. Photo Credit: NASA
Terry Virts prepares for an EVA simulation in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. Photo Credit: NASA

Virts completed a master’s degree in aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 1997 and attended test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., then worked as an experimental test pilot at the F-16 Combined Test Force. During his time at Edwards, he served as chief test pilot for the F-16 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) Targeting System (HTS), as well as the Multi-Mission Computer (MMC), which represented the largest upgrade program in the aircraft’s 40-year development history.

It was during this period that Virts applied to enter NASA’s astronaut corps as a shuttle pilot candidate. He had begun filling out the lengthy paperwork with one of his classmates—flight test engineer Bob Behnken, today’s Chief of the Astronaut Office—and as circumstances transpired the pair wound up being selected together in July 2000. “You turn in your paperwork…through the Air Force and then we made it through that hoop and then that got forwarded on to NASA,” Virts explained. “There were a couple of different milestones that we had to get through each one and, eventually, they bring you down [to Houston] for an interview. After the interview, it was a waiting game.” Told to expect a decision in March 2000, it was 20 July before Virts, Behnken and the other successful applicants received word that they had been hired into the most elite flying fraternity in the world. Virts was in the middle of a meeting at Edwards, about an upcoming F-16 test, when he received a telephone call from Chief Astronaut Charlie Precourt.

Precourt asked him if he still wanted to be an astronaut.

“Well, let me think about it,” replied Virts. “Yes!”

However, as a direct consequence of the Columbia tragedy, for whose crew he acted as one of the family escorts, Virts would wait almost a full decade for his first space mission. During that time, he served as lead astronaut for the T-38 program and as a test crewman in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL). At length, in December 2008, Virts was named as pilot for STS-130, a 13-day mission which launched in February 2010 and delivered the Tranquility node and cupola, marking the last major piece of U.S. pressurized hardware to be attached to the ISS. In the aftermath of his first flight, he entered Harvard Business School’s General Management Program in 2011 and, a year later, entered active training for his second mission, as a long-duration ISS crew member.

In spite of his French language skills, Virts admitted that he struggled with languages and, when asked about the most difficult part of training, learning Russian was top of the list for him. That was quite different from the third member of the Soyuz TMA-15M crew, Captain Samantha Cristoforetti of the Italian Air Force, who has a penchant for languages.

She was born in Milan, Italy, on 26 April 1977, but grew up in the small farming municipality of Malè, near Trento, in the far north of the country, and studied in both Bolzano and Trento, completing her secondary education in 1996, after spending a year as an exchange student in the United States. She had grown up with a love of exploration and space-related posters hung on her bedroom walls. Cristoforetti entered the Technical University of Munich, Germany, graduating with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, with specialisms in aerospace propulsion and lightweight structures, in 2001. During this period, she also spent four months at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace in Toulouse, France, working on an experimental aerodynamics project, and wrote her master’s thesis during a research residency at the Mendeleev University of Chemical Technologies in Moscow, Russia.

Samantha Cristoforetti, clad in her Sokol ("Falcon") launch and entry suit, examines the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft at Baikonur. Photo Credit: NASA
Samantha Cristoforetti, clad in her Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suit, examines the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft at Baikonur. Photo Credit: NASA

In that same year, 2001, Cristoforetti entered the Italian Air Force in Pozzuoli, and graduated as her class’ leader four years. As part of her training at the Italian Air Force Academy, she also earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical sciences from the University of Naples Federico II, and her academic excellence earned her the Honour Sword. Cristoforetti then spent a year at Sheppard Air Force Base, near Wichita Falls, Texas, and upon completion of the Euro-NATO Joint Test Pilot Training she qualified as a fighter pilot and was assigned to the 132nd Squadron, 51st Bomber Wing, based in Istrana, Italy. She underwent fighter fundamentals training and flew the MB-339 jet trainer and in 2008 joined the 101st Squadron, 32nd Bomber Wing, based in Foggia, Italy, where she completed operational conversion training for the AMX ground-attack aircraft. In doing so, she became the first female flight lieutenant and fighter pilot in the Italian Air Force.

Cristoforetti was selected as one of six European Space Agency (ESA) astronauts in May 2009 and completed basic training in November of the following year. Six months later, she traveled to Star City, the cosmonauts’ training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, to begin studying Soyuz spacecraft systems in depth for the first time. “An amazing feeling” was how she described the experience and, a year later, in July 2012, she was appointed by the Italian Space Agency (ASI) to a long-duration ISS expedition. The assignment resulted from a bilateral agreement between ASI and NASA, in exchange for Italy’s production of several major ISS pressurized modules, and will make Cristoforetti the seventh Italian to fly into space, the fifth to fly to the space station, the third to participate in a long-duration mission and the very first woman. Assuming her 169-day expedition runs to schedule, she will enter second place on the list of most experienced Italian astronauts—behind Paolo Nespoli, who has a cumulative total of 174 days, across two flights—but will establish a new national record for the longest single space mission by an Italian citizen.

A keen linguist, Cristoforetti is fluent in Italian and English and has studied French, German, Russian, and is studying Chinese as a hobby. Terry Virts paid tribute to her natural affinity for languages and, when asked about what they will speak during the mission, Shkaplerov explained that it will be Russian aboard Soyuz TMA-15M and English aboard the space station. However, he added that they often started sentences in English and ended them in Russian, before turning to Cristoforetti. “We can understand each other,” he said, with a grin, “unless we’re speaking in Italian!”

When she realized that she would fly aboard Expedition 42, it brought the science fiction enthusiast within her to the fore. One of her favorite books is “the trilogy in five parts” by Douglas Adams (1952-2001), whose initial work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. “In this book, 42 is the answer to the Ultimate Question of life, the Universe and everything,” Cristoforetti told the audience at the crew’s press conference at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, in September 2014. “Now, of course, nobody knows what the question is, but 42 was the answer!” One of the key phrases in the book—“Don’t Panic”—proved so powerful that Cristoforetti, Shkaplerov, and Virts designed their own tongue-in-cheek patches, emblazoned with the legend. For Terry Virts, the number 42 held another significance. During their training together in Houston, the avid baseball fan took Cristoforetti and Shkaplerov to see the Astros, the Rockets and the Texans, and was keen to add that the number was also that of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era.

Samantha Cristoforetti proudly displays her mission's "Futura" patch, as Terry Virts (left) and Anton Shkaplerov look on. Photo Credit: NASA
Samantha Cristoforetti proudly displays her mission’s “Futura” patch, as Terry Virts (left) and Anton Shkaplerov look on. Photo Credit: NASA

After more than a year of training, Cristoforetti asked people from her native Italy to suggest names for her expedition, focusing on inspirational words such as research, discovery, science, technology, exploration, wonder, and adventure. In December 2013, after more than a thousand names poured in, she chose “Futura”, which she felt “brings them all together with plenty of positive momentum towards the future.” A month later, the official logo for the mission was revealed. Designed by Valerio Papeti from Turin, Italy, it showed a stylized orbit of the ISS, together with an orbital sunrise, and included the national colors of Italy and the outline of Europe.

And Cristoforetti’s Italian ancestry is well represented by the fact that Soyuz TMA-15M will carry the first capsule-based espresso coffee machine to the space station. Known as “ISSpresso,” the initiative was jointly developed by the Lavazza coffee giant and the Argotec engineering and software firm, both headquartered in Turin, working in collaboration with ASI. It is expected that, during her mission, Cristoforetti will become the first astronaut in history to sample an authentic Italian espresso, brewed and quaffed whilst orbiting 240 miles (400 km) above Earth.

Described by Argotec as “a veritable technological and engineering jewel,” the highly complex ISSpresso unit weighs about 44 pounds (20 kg) and its development involved tackling several thorny issues of physics and fluid dynamics in the microgravity environment of low-Earth orbit. It was reported that one of the key obstacles facing the machine was handling and controlling its liquids at high pressures and temperatures, which requires in the region of eight to 10 bars to produce an optimum espresso. The plastic “steam tube” that normally carries water within an espresso machine was replaced by one of steel, which has the capacity to withstand pressures as high as 400 bars. “There are backups of all the critical components for safety reasons,” explained Argotec, “in accordance with the specifications agreed upon with the Italian Space Agency.”

In the words of David Avino, managing director of Argotec, in a recent video detailing the ISSpresso system, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano had commented in June 2013—barely a week into his six-month “Volare” mission—that the only thing he missed from Earth was a good, authentic espresso. By this time, the effort to build a space-certified espresso machine was already underway. The functional project was completed in June 2013, by which point Argotec had been working on ISSpresso for about a year. In true ISS fashion, the espresso will be served into sealed plastic pouches, which the astronauts and cosmonauts will drink, “hot and steaming,” via a straw. Nor will non-espresso-drinkers be excluded from what is expected to become the station’s corner cafè. “The innovative capsule system,” explained Argotec, “will also be able to prepare not only a regular espresso, but also a caffè lungo or hot beverages, such as tea, infusions and broth, so that food can also be rehydrated.”

According to Giuseppe Lavazza, vice president of the family-owned Lavazza company, founded in 1895 and currently the world’s seventh-ranking coffee roaster, planning for a space-based espresso system has been underway for some time. “Italian coffee is a beverage without borders,” Lavazza explained in an Argotec press release. “Today, we are in a position to overcome the limits of weightlessness and enjoy a good espresso—the indisputable symbol of made-in-Italy products—on board the International Space Station.” He described ISSpresso as “a scientific and engineering challenge which we hope will improve the living and nutrition quality of astronauts engaged on long missions.” Lavazza’s hope is that ISSpresso will evolve into nothing less than “a sort of social network in space,” offering station crews “a venue for getting together, chatting and relaxing.”

The Soyuz TMA-15M crew perform a routine training activity inside the International Space Station (ISS) mockup/trainer at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. Photo Credit: NASA
The Soyuz TMA-15M crew perform a routine training activity inside the International Space Station (ISS) mockup/trainer at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. Photo Credit: NASA

In addition to the coffee machine, Argotec is also playing a key role in the training and nutritional support of European Space Agency (ESA) crew members aboard the ISS and developed the space food menus for last year’s Volare mission by Parmitano and the recent Blue Dot mission by Germany’s Alexander Gerst. In support of Samantha Cristoforetti’s forthcoming six-month mission, Argotec is preparing “a special dedicated menu for her with very simple, easily available and affordable ingredients.” As part of its so-called “Space Food Lab,” the company is preparing foodstuffs with a shelf-life of at least 18-24 months, 100 percent organic, and without salt. Cristoforetti’s official Argotec chef, Stafano Polato, is working with ingredients suggested by the astronaut herself, which include vegetables, chicken, quinoa, brown rice, puffed cereals, dried fruit, fine spices, mackerel, gogj and mixed berries, and apple juice. “The main goal of this study was to lower the amount of sodium content in food and adapt a method of preservation that would not alter the color, fragrance and flavor of food,” explained Argotec, whilst stressing that “our healthy products would also boost the ISS crew psychologically.”

When questioned about what they most eagerly anticipated during their upcoming six-month mission, Shkaplerov, Virts, and Cristoforetti’s replies were just as diverse as their careers and myriad interests, and yet—like their Air Force backgrounds—they were in mutual agreement far more than disagreement. Despite her position as the flight’s only “rookie” crew member, Cristoforetti’s performance was lauded by Shkaplerov, who explained that the difficulty during training for himself and Virts was preventing themselves from falling asleep in the cabin, because the Italian knew the systems so well that she could single-handedly take care of the whole ship. In response, Cristoforetti replied that her military career had taught her to fly single-seat aircraft, but learning to operate as part of a three-member team in a multi-seat spacecraft had been an exciting challenge.

And if she is called upon to perform an EVA, she is well-versed in the U.S.-built Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) and has worked extensively underwater in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) in Houston. Her petite size, she explained, was the greatest challenge, to which Virts agreed that the space suits were relatively cumbersome. Yet one aspect of the mission about which the trio are most looking forward to savoring is the view of Earth. Thunderstorms in the Amazon and in Central Africa, said Virts, particularly at dawn, are striking in their beauty, since they show up both the clouds and the lightning flashes. For the next six months, they will be in a whole new environment—an environment of microgravity, near-pure vacuum, and totally alien—which prompted one of them to quip: “We’re not Earthlings anymore!”


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