Soyuz TMA-17M Crew Ready for May Launch to Space Station

Soyuz TMA-17M crewmen (from left) Kimiya Yui, Oleg Kononenko and Kjell Lindgren discuss their upcoming expedition at yesterday's press conference at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. Photo Credit: Michael Galindo/AmericaSpace

Soyuz TMA-17M crewmen (from left) Kimiya Yui, Oleg Kononenko and Kjell Lindgren discuss their upcoming expedition at yesterday’s press conference at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. Photo Credit: Michael Galindo/AmericaSpace

Three spacefarers from three discrete nations are currently entering their final weeks on Earth, ahead of launch towards the International Space Station (ISS) on 26/27 May for a six-month increment. Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko—a veteran of two previous long-duration ISS expeditions, with a cumulative 391 days of experience—will command Soyuz TMA-17M when it rockets into orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch is presently scheduled for 1:42 a.m. local time on 27 May (3:42 p.m. EDT on 26 May). Kononenko will be joined by U.S. astronaut Kjell Lindgren and Japan’s Kimiya Yui, both of whom will be embarking on the first space voyage of their respective careers. All three men gathered before an audience of media and social media representatives yesterday (Wednesday, 18 March) to discuss their multi-faceted mission.

The trio were formally announced by NASA in July 2013 and after launch they will embark on a now-standard six-hour, four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile to reach the space station and dock at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Rassvet module. They will form the second half of the Expedition 44 crew, under the command of Russia’s Gennadi Padalka and also including One-Year crew members Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko, who are presently scheduled to launch from Baikonur aboard Soyuz TMA-16M on 26/27 March. Current plans call for Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui to remain aboard the ISS until 5 November, which will produce an overall duration for their expedition of about 163 days. Uniquely for a Soyuz-launched ISS long-duration expedition, none of them will rotate to command the station, but all three will remain as flight engineers throughout their six months aloft, serving under Padalka from May until September and under Kelly from September through November.

Their stay is expected to feature the arrival of two SpaceX Dragon cargo missions—executed under the language of the $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, signed with NASA back in December 2008—in June and September, which will deliver the first of two International Docking Adapters (IDAs) for future Commercial Crew needs and the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). This year, 2015, is shaping up to be a significant one for ISS operations, since the need to install the two IDAs on the forward and space-facing (or “zenith”) ports of the Harmony node will require the June relocation of the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) from its current perch on the nadir interface of the Unity node to the forward interface of the Tranquility node and the October relocation of the Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-3 from Tranquility to the zenith face of Harmony. As described in a recent AmericaSpace article, these movements will enable the docking of SpaceX Dragon V-2 and Boeing CST-100 Commercial Crew vehicles at the Harmony forward and zenith ports from 2017 onwards and the berthing of unpiloted visitors, including future Dragons, Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo ships and Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicles (HTVs), at the Unity and Harmony nadir.

Within weeks of their arrival in orbit, Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui will welcome their first visitor, SpaceX's CRS-7 Dragon cargo vehicle. Photo Credit: NASA

Within weeks of their arrival in orbit, Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui will welcome their first visitor, SpaceX’s CRS-7 Dragon cargo vehicle. Photo Credit: NASA

By the time Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui arrive on the ISS, they will join a crew whose commander is already the world’s second most experienced spacefarer. As noted previously in an AmericaSpace article, Gennadi Padalka presently ranks fourth in the world, with a combined 710 days of experience, spread across four previous missions to Mir and the ISS. Following his launch on 26/27 March, he will eclipse Sergei Avdeyev on 3 May to enter third place and surpass Aleksandr Kaleri on 25 May to secure second place. Five weeks later, on 28 June, Padalka will break fellow cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev’s empirical record of 803 days to become the world’s most experienced spacefarer. By the time he returns to Earth on 11 September, Padalka will have accrued about 878 days in orbit, which represents about 2.4 years of his 57 years of life.

Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui will need to hit the ground running and in Wednesday’s press conference they pointed out that they will participate in the early stages of the first One-Year Mission of the ISS era. Current plans call for the launch of SpaceX’s CRS-7 Dragon on 22 June, after which it will be captured by means of the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 manipulator arm and robotically berthed at the nadir port of the Harmony node. In addition to a core payload of supplies and equipment in its pressurized segment, Dragon will also house IDA-1 in its unpressurized “Trunk”. After the robotic relocation of the Leonardo PMM from Unity nadir to Tranquility forward, Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren will embark on U.S. EVA-32—the fourth spacewalk from the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) in 2015, following a trio of excursions by Expedition 42’s Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Terry Virts last month—to install and outfit IDA-1 on Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-2 at the forward end of the Harmony node.

After about a month at the station, the CRS-7 Dragon will be robotically detached towards the end of July and will return to Earth. Present planning manifests anticipate that the CRS-8 Dragon, carrying Bigelow’s BEAM expandable facility, as described in a recent AmericaSpace article, will fly from early September until early October. This module will be robotically attached to Tranquility’s aft Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM), where it will remain for about two years. “The crew…will activate a pressurization system that will allow the structure to expand to its full size (about the size of a large camping tent) using air stored within the module,” wrote AmericaSpace’s Talia Landman. “When BEAM is fully deployed, it will add an additional 565 cubic feet (16 cubic meters) of volume to the ISS and allow for easy access by astronauts aboard the station. The space station habitants will enter the…module periodically to gather data and perform routine inspections.”

Representing Japan, Russia and the United States, the Soyuz TMA-17M crew of (from left) Kimiya Yui, Oleg Kononenko and Kjell Lindgren will spend 163 days in space from late May through early November. Photo Credit: Michael Galindo/AmericaSpace

Representing Japan, Russia and the United States, the Soyuz TMA-17M crew of (from left) Kimiya Yui, Oleg Kononenko and Kjell Lindgren will spend 163 days in space from late May through early November. Photo Credit: Michael Galindo/AmericaSpace

In addition to the flow of Dragons, the ISS will also see the arrival, departure and relocation of Russian Progress resupply craft, in anticipation for a “direct handover” of crew members in the first half of September. Significantly, Progress M-26M—launched in mid-February—will be undocked from the aft longitudinal port of the Zvezda module in late August. This will enable Padalka, Kornienko and Kelly to perform a short, 25-minute “hop” to transfer their Soyuz TMA-16M craft from the zenith-facing Poisk module to Zvezda aft, thereby making room for the arrival of Soyuz TMA-18M on 1 September.

Under normal circumstances, six-person ISS expeditions follow an “indirect rotation” protocol, whereby a given three-member subset of the crew departs, temporarily reducing the station’s population to three, after which a new three-member crew arrives to restore it to six. However, with Kelly and Kornienko embarking on a one-year mission, and with their Soyuz commander, Padalka, due to return after six months, a replacement commander was needed to join them for the second half of their long voyage. As such, Sergei Volkov will command Soyuz TMA-18M and will be joined by Andreas Mogensen, Denmark’s first astronaut, representing the European Space Agency (ESA), and also by English soprano Sarah Brightman, who is flying as a “Spaceflight Participant”.

As a consequence, with the arrival of Volkov, Mogensen and Brightman, the ISS will play host to as many as three Soyuz vehicles and a total of nine crew members for the first time in almost two years. ISS Program managers prefer to utilize the lateral Poisk and Rassvet modules for Soyuz, in order that the Zvezda aft can be employed by Progress or Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs) for the purpose of orbital reboosts. Since Soyuz TMA-16M is scheduled to depart the station on 11 September and the next Progress would not be due until October, its brief presence at the Zvezda aft port is not expected to pose any visiting vehicle traffic complications. Soyuz TMA-16M will return to Earth with Padalka, Mogensen and Brightman, with command of the ISS handed over to Scott Kelly, who will lead Expedition 45 through the return of Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui in November.

In August 2015, Kimiya Yui will be only the second Japanese citizen to be on-station to receive a H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) from Japan. Photo Credit: NASA

In August 2015, Kimiya Yui will be only the second Japanese citizen to be on-station to receive a H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) from Japan. Photo Credit: NASA

In addition to Progress, Soyuz and Dragon, Japan’s fifth H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-5) is scheduled to fly in August 2015 and will initially be robotically berthed at the Harmony nadir interface, before being transferred to Unity nadir. In so doing, it will become the first visiting vehicle to occupy the Unity nadir port after the PMM relocation. During yesterday’s press conference, Kimiya Yui—who will become only the second Japanese astronaut to be on-station to welcome one of these Japanese cargo ships—said that he hopes to be able to play a role in the grappling and berthing process. Previously, Aki Hoshide was aboard the ISS and berthed the HTV-3 craft in July 2012. About six weeks later, in early October, HTV-5 will be robotically transferred from Unity nadir back to Harmony nadir and finally detached from the station and deorbited.

Two further U.S. EVAs are tentatively scheduled for the October timeframe and AmericaSpace’s Michael Galindo asked at yesterday’s press conference which members of the USOS crew (whether Kelly, Lindgren or Yui) would perform them. “Everything can change,” Lindgren explained. “It just depends on the schedule and what the operational requirements are at the time.” With respect to the two October EVAs—which will occur shortly after the relocation of PMA-3 to Harmony zenith and ahead of the arrival of IDA-2 aboard SpaceX’s CRS-9 Dragon in December—Lindgren added that “hopefully those will stay within our increment, because that might represent an opportunity for Kimiya and I to do a spacewalk together”. At the same time, he cautioned that it would depend “on vehicle traffic at that time and what our science needs are at that time”.

Looking ahead to his first mission, Lindgren is keenly aware that the priority is continuing scientific research, in keeping with the station’s role as a U.S. National Laboratory, in spite of the major relocation of modules and movement of research racks to lay power cables and other utilities throughout the summer and into the fall. “We have a whole planning division that’s working with the knowledge that we’re going to be rotating racks and doing other things that can impact science,” he said, “so we’re going to try and mitigate and reduce the impact of reconfiguration on science as much as possible.” Questioned on the scientific research that they will perform, Kononenko made reference to ongoing plasma crystal, biomedical and materials research investigations in the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS), whilst Yui noted the astrophysics payloads on the exterior of Japan’s Kibo laboratory module and Lindgren added that there are “some amazing capabilities up there” and stressed the importance of the medical studies, from visual changes to bone loss and muscle atrophy experienced by long-duration spacefarers.

Soyuz TMA-17M crewmembers (from left) Kjell Lindgren, Oleg Kononenko and Kimiya Yui participate in a Soyuz training session. Photo Credit: NASA

Soyuz TMA-17M crewmembers (from left) Kjell Lindgren, Oleg Kononenko and Kimiya Yui participate in a Soyuz training session. Photo Credit: NASA

Notwithstanding the presence of two “rookies” on Soyuz TMA-17M, Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui are clearly ready to go, having been declared fully proficient in November 2014, in their previous role as backups to Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, U.S. astronaut Terry Virts and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti on the Soyuz TMA-15M crew. “We had most of our training and certifications done at that time,” said Lindgren. “In the past four or five months, we’ve been doing some last-minute training and working on payloads.” Kononenko lauded his crewmates, noting that “it’s hard to call them rookies, because they are very experienced and educated astronauts”. However, he stressed that he will offer them guidance before launch at Baikonur and will provide advice about entering microgravity for the first time and adapting to the new environment.

Having served aboard Expedition 17 as a flight engineer between April-October 2008 and subsequently as a flight engineer on Expedition 30 and commander of Expedition 31 from December 2011 through July 2012, Kononenko has accrued more than a year of his life—391 days—in orbit, making him the 19th most experienced spacefarer in the world. By the time he returns to Earth in early November, he will have pushed his personal tally yet further to 554 days, thereby establishing him at No. 9 on the list. Speaking of his commander, Lindgren described Kononenko as “a resource for balancing ideas and thoughts…for living and working in space”. As for Lindgren and Yui themselves, both were selected for astronaut training back by NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2009 and both worked closely together, prior to their assignment to Expedition 44/45.

For Lindgren, the hardest part of training was traveling and spending time away from his family. He estimated that about 40 percent of more than two years of mission-specific training was spent outside the United States. Yui’s worries were learning both English and Russian, whilst Kononenko felt that expedition training was long and arduous, but pointed out that “learning and training go hand-in-hand”.

However, it will all be worth it. Lindgren looks forward to visiting the station’s multi-windowed cupola, having been told by fellow astronauts that photography does not do justice to the magnificence of the experience and that no camera can pick out the vibrant nature of Earth’s colors and textures. In their free time, both he and Yui expect to be active on social media platforms, as well as watching films whilst exercising, and socializing with their crewmates. Kononenko added that private time talking with his family provides an important psychological crutch. And lastly, but not least, the foods they will consume are expected to be as “international” as the station itself.

Whilst Kononenko displayed an appreciation for cotton cheese with nuts, Lindgren and Yui exchanged humorous glances when they revealed that they both shared a craving for curry with rice.

Lindgren added with a chuckle that Yui will need to protect his supply.

 

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