Only a week after the safe return to Earth of Soyuz TMA-14M and its crew of Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev and Yelena Serova and U.S. astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore—wrapping up a highly successful Expedition 42—the torch has been passed to a new team of spacefarers from three nations to keep the International Space Station (ISS) operational into mid-2015. Under the command of NASA’s Terry Virts, the new Expedition 43 presently consists of Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti, although their number is expected to expand to six later this month, when Soyuz TMA-16M launches with new crewmembers Gennadi Padalka, Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly to begin the first year-long mission of the ISS era. As described by Virts in last week’s change-of-command ceremony, Expedition 43 promises to be “a short expedition, but it’s going to be busy”.
With the departure of Samokutyayev, Serova and Wilmore, the space station currently plays host to three visiting vehicles: the Soyuz TMA-15M craft of Shkaplerov, Virts and Cristoforetti, which arrived at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Rassvet module last 23/24 November, and Russia’s unpiloted Progress M-25M and M-26M cargo vehicles, the former of which docked at the Pirs module last October and the most recent of which has been docked at the aft longitudinal port of the Zvezda module since mid-February. According to present plans, recently published by Novosti Kosmonavtiki, Progress M-26M is expected to support an orbit correction of the ISS on Thursday, 19 March, preparatory to several weeks of incoming and outgoing vehicle operations.
These operations are scheduled to commence from Site 1/5 (“Gagarin’s Start”) at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 1:42 a.m. local time Saturday, 28 March (3:42 p.m. EDT Friday, 27 March), with the launch of Soyuz TMA-16M and Padalka, Kornienko and Kelly, who will form one of the most experienced crews ever launched into space. By the time they achieve orbit, they will have 11 cumulative space missions between them and, with Kornienko and Kelly expected to remain aboard the ISS through 3 March 2016, part of the crew will establish the first mission of almost a year’s duration ever achieved in the 21st century. Although year-plus expeditions were accomplished by four Russian cosmonauts—Vladimir Titov, Musa Manarov, Valeri Polyakov and Sergei Avdeyev—between 1987-1999, they were done aboard the long-since-deorbited Mir space station. Although no further year-long missions are currently envisaged, at least through 2018, it is expected that the long residency of Kornienko and Kelly will enable significant insights into how the human body functions in microgravity over an extended period of time, ahead of NASA’s plan to embark on Beyond Low-Earth Orbit (BLEO) aspirations in the next decade.
Following launch, Padalka, Kornienko and Kelly will follow a well-trodden “fast rendezvous” profile to reach the ISS, lasting approximately six hours and four circuits of Earth, with docking at the space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module—only recently vacated by Soyuz TMA-14M—at 7:36 a.m. Baikonur time Saturday (9:36 p.m. EDT Friday). Standard pressurization and leak checks will be conducted, after which hatches into the station will be opened and the new arrivals will be welcomed by Virts, Shkaplerov and Cristoforetti as the second half of Expedition 43.
The main event for April will be the arrival of SpaceX’s sixth dedicated Dragon mission (CRS-6), under its $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA, signed back in December 2008. Under the language of this contract, SpaceX—the Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch operator, headed by Elon Musk—is required to launch 12 dedicated Dragons to the ISS by 2016, delivering about 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) of equipment, supplies and other consumables to the station’s rotating crews. This year, 2015, is expected to be an exciting one for SpaceX, with one Dragon mission already accomplished in January-February and four others yet to come, marking the largest number of unpiloted cargo flights ever accomplished in a single 12-month span by a commercial provider. Pivotally, these will deliver two International Docking Adapters (IDAs) in June and December, for future Commercial Crew use, and the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) in September.
Present plans call for the CRS-6 mission to get underway on 11 April, blasting off atop SpaceX’s homegrown Falcon 9 v1.1 booster from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and kicking off an expected two-day rendezvous profile to produce a capture and berthing at the nadir-facing port of the station’s Harmony node. To accomplish the berthing, U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) crew members Virts, Cristoforetti and Kelly will employ the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm to grapple Dragon and robotically attach it to the ISS, where it will remain until its scheduled return to Earth in early May. As Dragon arrives, so Russia’s Progress M-25M cargo ship is expected to undock from the station on 26 April and return to a fiery destruction in the upper atmosphere. Two days later, a new craft, Progress M-27M, will rise from Baikonur and take its place at the Pirs interface.
With Shkaplerov in command, the Soyuz TMA-15M crew are expected to return to Earth on 14 May, after 171 days in orbit. In readiness for their departure, Virts will relinquish command of the ISS to Padalka—who will, on 3 May, have moved from fourth to third place on the list of the world’s most experienced spacefarers, eclipsing Sergei Avdeyev and sitting just behind Aleksandr Kaleri and all-time record-holder Sergei Krikalev—to officially usher in Expedition 44. Returning to Earth after almost six months, the Soyuz TMA-15M will complete a remarkable mission, which will have seen the arrival and departure of Russian, U.S. and European cargo craft, dozens of research experiments and a trio of U.S. EVAs to install the Common Communications for Visiting Vehicles (C2V2) architecture and prepare for the relocation of major ISS hardware elements and the arrival of two International Docking Adapters (IDAs) for Commercial Crew applications.
Assuming an on-time touchdown of Soyuz TMA-15M in central Kazakhstan on 14 May, Virts will accrue a career total of about 185 days, when counting his 14-day stint as pilot of the STS-130 shuttle mission, which delivered the Tranquility node and cupola, back in February 2010. Meanwhile, Shkaplerov will wrap up his second long-duration ISS expedition and establish himself as the 37th most seasoned astronaut or cosmonaut of all time, with about 336 days of flight time, whilst Cristoforetti will—by default—become Italy’s most experienced female spacefarer, the most experienced non-Russian and non-U.S. female spacefarer, the ninth most experienced female spacefarer and the second most experienced Italian spacefarer, sitting just a few days behind 174-day veteran Paolo Nespoli, who flew aboard both the shuttle and ISS.
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