In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the No. 42 may be the answer to the unknowable question, but the curtain has finally fallen on Expedition 42—the most recent long-duration increment to the International Space Station (ISS)—with the safe return to Earth of Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev and Yelena Serova and U.S. astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore. The trio touched down in central Kazakhstan, just to the south-east of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan, at 8:07 a.m. local time Thursday, 12 March (10:07 p.m. EDT Wednesday, 11 March), some 167 days, 5 hours, and 44 minutes since their launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome last 25/26 September. Their landing marks the official start of Expedition 43, under the command of U.S. astronaut Terry Virts. Joined by Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti, they will operate as a trio until 27/28 March, when the Soyuz TMA-16M crew of Russian cosmonauts Gennadi Padalka and Mikhail “Misha” Kornienko and U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly arrive to kick off the first year-long expedition of the ISS era.
As outlined in AmericaSpace’s Expedition 41/42 overview article, Samokutyayev, Serova, and Wilmore blasted into orbit from Baikonur Cosmodrome last September, and, despite the failure of one of Soyuz TMA-14M’s electricity-generating solar arrays to properly unfurl, they docked successfully at the space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module about six hours later. The stubborn array jolted successfully open with the impact of docking. For their first six weeks, they worked with the Expedition 41 crew—Commander Max Surayev of Russia, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, and Germany’s Alexander Gerst—supporting dozens of research experiments, SpaceX’s fourth Dragon cargo ship (CRS-4), the arrival of Russia’s Progress M-25M freighter, and three EVAs in the October timeframe. Their work was hampered, however, on 29 October, when Orbital Sciences’ third Cygnus cargo mission (ORB-3) was lost in the catastrophic failure of its Antares launch vehicle.
With the return to Earth of Surayev, Wiseman, and Gerst aboard Soyuz TMA-13M in the first half of November, Wilmore took command of Expedition 42, which endured as a three-member crew for two weeks, until the arrival of Shkaplerov, Virts, and Cristoforetti aboard Soyuz TMA-15M on 24 November. During their four months together, the astronauts and cosmonauts welcomed the fifth Dragon (CRS-5) in January 2015, bade farewell to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) final Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) in February, and supported three U.S. EVAs by Wilmore and Virts in February-March to lay cables and utilities in readiness for the installation of two International Docking Adapters (IDAs) and the expansive Common Communications for Visiting Vehicles (C2V2) architecture.
In readiness for the return of Wilmore’s crew to Earth, the six-strong team assembled aboard the orbiting laboratory on Tuesday, 10 March, for the traditional change-of-command ceremony. With incoming Expedition 43 Commander Virts at his side—and beaming Samokutyayev, Serova, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti looking on—Wilmore began his address by thanking the entire Expedition 42 support team on the ground for their sterling work. “It’s no small task to take the lead and take all the Program requirements from around the globe and implement them here on board,” he told his audience. “Our congratulations to you and thanks for making our job really easy.” He paid tribute to his own crew, noting that it was “a blessing to have this group of people assembled together,” and jokingly singled out Cristoforetti as “the only person who can say I’m sorry, Thank you and Job well done in five different languages, fluently!”
Without further ado, Wilmore turned the microphone over to Virts. Clapping his comrade and former spacewalking buddy on the back, he commented: “As we say in the Navy, you have the helm!” The softly-spoken Virts began with warm praise for his outgoing commander and described his excitement for the months ahead, which will see him lead Expedition 43 until mid-May. “We’re looking forward to doing world-class science, like we’ve been doing,” he said. “We’re looking forward to keeping the station running and getting it reconfigured for the future vehicles that we’re going to have and we’re looking forward to getting Scott and Misha off on the right foot for their year-long mission.”
Virts was, of course, referring to the impending 26/27 March launch from Baikonur of U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, who will remain aboard the ISS through March 2016. This will make them the first ISS crew to spend about a year in space and will mark the first mission of such ultra-marathon duration since the era of Russia’s Mir station. Not since the return to Earth of cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev in August 1999, after 379 days aloft, has such an ultra-long-duration expedition been attempted. Kelly and Kornienko will be accompanied into orbit by veteran cosmonaut Gennadi Padalka, who is expected to remain aboard for a nominal six months, before he changes places with the incoming Soyuz TMA-18M’s Sergei Volkov in September, who will join the year-long duo for the remainder of their ISS stay.
Perhaps paying tribute to this dramatic start to 2015, Virts described Expedition 43 as “a short expedition, but it’s going to be busy.” He will command the station until shortly before the scheduled return to Earth of himself, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti on 14 May, whereupon he will—in his turn—relinquish command to Padalka to inaugurate Expedition 44. “But first,” said Virts, with a twinkle in his eye, “we need to get in proper uniform.” And without missing a beat, he pulled out and passed around royal-blue Expedition 43 polo shirts for his crew, which they donned, to a chorus of “All right!” from Wilmore. Shaking the space station’s new skipper by the hand, Wilmore said: “Colonel, you have the helm!”
By this stage, Samokutyayev, Serova, and Wilmore were well into the homestretch of packing their equipment and personal effects aboard Soyuz TMA-14M. Clad in their launch and entry suits, the trio undocked from the ISS at 6:44 p.m. EDT Wednesday to kick off their 3.5-hour return to Earth. During this period of free flight, they executed a 4.5-minute deorbit “burn” of their spacecraft’s engines at 9:16 p.m., then jettisoned their spherical orbital module and cylindrical instrument module. With the three crew members ensconced inside the beehive-shaped Soyuz descent module, they plunged base-first into the “sensible” atmosphere, attaining Entry Interface (EI) at an altitude of 400,000 feet (122 km) about a half-hour later. Despite a lengthy communications gap, which began toward the end of the deorbit burn, the re-entry was executed without incident.
The early phases of re-entry were highlighted by the rapid heating of the spacecraft’s outer surfaces—caused by friction with the steadily thickening atmospheric gases—and Soyuz TMA-14M streaked, meteorically, across the sky, heading for a touchdown in Kazakhstan. Eight minutes after EI, the spacecraft was traveling in excess of 515 mph (830 km/h), but this rate of descent was shortly arrested by the deployment of four parachutes. The first of these were unfurled about 15 minutes before touchdown and took the form of two “pilot” canopies, followed by the 258-square-foot (24-square-meter) drogue, which slowed Samokutyayev, Serova, and Wilmore to about 180 mph (290 km/h). Finally, the main chute deployed to its fully inflated surface area of 10,764 square feet (1,000 square meters) to shift Soyuz TMA-14M’s attitude to a 30-degree angle, relative to the ground.
This steadily dissipated heat, then shifted the spacecraft back to a straight-vertical profile for landing. The main canopy slowed the Soyuz to a more stately 16.4 mph (26.4 km/h), although this was still too fast for a safe touchdown. It was left to the solid-fueled rockets in the descent module’s base—which ignited a couple of seconds before landing—to cushion the impact on the desolate Kazakh steppe. Touchdown occurred at 8:07 a.m. local time Thursday, 12 March (10:07 p.m. EDT Wednesday, 11 March), closing out a mission of 167 days, 5 hours, and 44 minutes, more than 71 million miles (114 million km) traveled, and 2,599 orbits of Earth. Early indications are that the crew are healthy after more than 5.5 months living and working in the microgravity environment.
Thus has concluded the 42nd expedition to the ISS, which continues an unbroken line of U.S., Russian, German, French, Japanese, Belgian, Canadian, Italian, and Dutch long-duration residents of the space station, stretching back to the arrival of Expedition 1 crewmen Bill Shepherd, Sergei Krikalev, and Yuri Gidzenko in November 2000. Returning to Earth at the end of Expedition 42, Aleksandr Samokutyayev has now accrued 331 days, 11 hours, and 25 minutes at the end of his second mission, which establishes him as the 41st most experienced spacefarer in the world. Barry “Butch” Wilmore—who became the first former shuttle pilot since 2003 to participate in an EVA during this expedition—has accumulated a personal total of 178 days and 1 hour exactly, when taking into account his 11-day STS-129 mission, back in November 2009. This will make him the world’s 89th most experienced spacefarer. Lastly, Yelena Serova, who became Russia’s fourth female cosmonaut, has positioned herself as the world’s 99th most experienced spacefarer and the ninth most experienced woman space traveller as she wraps up her first mission.
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