The week of Thanksgiving started in spectacular fashion at 9:49 p.m. EST Sunday, when the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft and its crew of Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, U.S. astronaut Terry Virts, and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti, successfully docked at the International Space Station (ISS). The trio of spacefarers—all of them Air Force officers from their respective nations’ armed services—had earlier launched from Site 31/6 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 3:01:14 a.m. local time Monday (4:01:14 p.m. EST Sunday), turning night into day across the desolate steppe of Central Asia. Following a well-trodden, six-hour and four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile, Soyuz TMA-15M executed a quartet of thruster firings to position itself for a docking at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module. Shkaplerov, Virts, and Cristoforetti have now joined the incumbent Expedition 42 of U.S. astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev and Yelena Serova, who have been aboard the space station since 25 September.
As described in AmericaSpace’s Soyuz TMA-15M preview article and crew profiles, the new arrivals will remain aboard the ISS until mid-May 2015, with Virts destined to take command of Expedition 43 when Wilmore, Samokutyayev, and Serova leave in mid-March. Between now and then, the six-strong crew—which will soon make history by marking the first occasion on which two women have been in orbit over Christmas and the New Year—has an enormous workload of scientific experiments on their plate within the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS), including more than 170 U.S. investigations and over 70 others contributed by international researchers.
Shkaplerov also noted before the mission that he will be participating in numerous biological and medical experiments in the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS). In addition to the science, the Expedition 42 crew expects to receive two SpaceX Dragon cargo missions, in December and February, and will oversee the departure of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) fifth and final Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-5) and the exchange of Russian Progress cargo ships. A pair of six-hour spacewalks by Wilmore and Virts are also expected in the January-February period, tasked with laying cables and utilities for the International Docking Adapters (IDAs), which will be delivered by two further Dragons next summer, in support of Commercial Crew operations from 2017.
In the immediate aftermath of last night’s successful launch, Shkaplerov, Virts, and Cristoforetti wasted no time in executing the first steps of their fast rendezvous to reach the ISS. Within 12 minutes of leaving Earth, Soyuz TMA-15M’s communications and navigational antennas and its electricity-generating solar arrays had been deployed. Forty-five minutes into the mission, the first maneuvering “burn” (designated “DV-1”) took place, with the second (DV-2) occurring at about 90 minutes after liftoff. These were followed by another pair of burns, later in the rendezvous sequence, which established the appropriate conditions for a docking at Rassvet. Under Shkaplerov’s deft control, Soyuz TMA-15M appeared to the eyes of Wilmore, Samokutyayev, and Serova aboard the ISS as a bright, star-like object, against the deep blue of Earth’s oceans, and later reflecting sunlight as it drew closer to its quarry.
Finally, the spacecraft docked in a mechanized embrace at 9:49 p.m. EST, some five hours and 48 minutes after leaving Baikonur, and about four minutes ahead of schedule. With six previous Soyuz crews having also performed successful fast rendezvous profiles between March 2013 and September 2014, the sight of crew members actually boarding the ISS just a handful of hours after bidding farewell to their families is mesmerizing and offers the mistaken impression that such endeavors are “routine.” Yet the success of each docking masks the incredible complexity of the orbital mechanics required to plan these rendezvous profiles and their fallibility was demonstrated in March 2014, when Soyuz TMA-12M succumbed to a software glitch, which forced its fast rendezvous to be called off and the mission reverted instead to a “default,” two-day regimen.
Following standard pressurization and leak checks, overseen by Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) lead crewman Aleksandr Samokutyayev, the hatches were opened at the stroke of midnight EST and the three new arrivals were warmly embraced by the other members of the Expedition 42 crew. Shortly afterwards, the combined crews assembled for a NASA news conference in the Russian Zvezda service module, but Shkaplerov, Virts, and Cristoforetti elected to indulge in a bite to eat during one period of Loss of Signal (LOS). At one stage, Terry Virts—who is making his second space voyage, having previously served as pilot aboard the STS-130 shuttle mission in February 2010, which installed the Tranquility node and multi-windowed cupola onto the ISS—could be seen, his eyes fixated upon a free-floating tortilla.
Over the coming days, Shkaplerov, Virts, and Cristoforetti will accustom themselves to their new orbital home. They will also celebrate Thanksgiving together in orbit on Thursday, 27 November, with their plans for the day to be detailed in a forthcoming AmericaSpace article. In addition to their scientific research workload, Expedition 42 will receive its first unpiloted visitor in mid-December, when SpaceX launches its fifth dedicated Dragon cargo mission (SpX-5), atop a Falcon 9 v1.1 booster from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.
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