Preparations for the launch of Soyuz TMA-16M from Site 1/5 (the famed “Gagarin’s Start”) at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan have been ongoing for several months. Making its 125th piloted flight since the ill-fated voyage of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, way back in April 1967, the Soyuz spacecraft comprises three main segments: from the base, a cylindrical instrument and propulsion module, a bell-shaped descent module, and a spheroidal orbital module. Soyuz TMA-16M arrived at Baikonur last year and completed its final testing in February 2015. Earlier this month, the prime crew of Padalka, Kornienko, and Kelly and their backups—Russian cosmonauts Alexei Ovchinin and Sergei Volkov, together with NASA’s Jeff Williams—flew from the training center at Star City, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, to Baikonur on the desolate Kazakh steppe. Following time-honored tradition, Padalka and Ovchinin reported their readiness to members of the State Commission and Technical Management.
Over the course of the following days, final preparations entered high gear. Loading of about 1,760 pounds (800 kg) of unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide for its attitude control propellants, together with helium pressurant and oxygen and nitrogen for its environmental systems aboard Soyuz TMA-16M got underway on 15 March, and, two days later, it was delivered to the Spacecraft Assembly and Testing Facility for final closeouts. On Sunday, 22 March, the aerodynamic payload fairing was installed around the Soyuz, and on Tuesday, 24 March, the spacecraft was installed atop the Soyuz-FG booster. Following meetings of the State Commission and Technical Management, the vehicle was rolled horizontally to Site 1/5 on Wednesday. In the meantime, the prime and backup crews pressed ahead with final familiarization exercises and on 16 March participated in a ceremonial hoisting of the national flags of Russia, the United States, and the host country for the Soyuz TMA-16M launch, Kazakhstan.
With liftoff targeted for 1:42:59 a.m. local time on Saturday, 28 March (3:42:59 p.m. EDT on Friday, 27 March), Launch Day promises to be a long one for both the prime and backup crews. They will be awakened about 8.5 hours before the scheduled T-0. They will shower and be disinfected, after which microbial samples will be taken in support of the scientific and biomedical investigations to be undertaken in orbit. Breakfast will be followed by departure from Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel and the traditional blessing by a Russian Orthodox priest. Padalka, Kornienko, and Kelly will then be bussed out to Site 254, where they will submit to final medical checks and don their Sokol launch and entry suits. This will offer them a final chance to speak, face-to-face, with their families, albeit from behind glass screens. They will depart Site 254, bound for the launch pad.
Like several of its predecessors, Soyuz TMA-16M will embark on a six-hour, four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile, to alleviate pressure on the crew. Earlier missions typically followed a two-day rendezvous regime, which proved more economical in terms of propellant expenditure, but also tended to be highly cramped, stressful, and exacerbated nausea and motion sickness. First trialed by an unmanned Progress resupply craft in August 2012, the “fast rendezvous” was successfully executed by four Soyuz crews last year and would have been performed by Soyuz TMA-12M in March 2014, but for a malfunction shortly after orbital insertion. This forced the crew to revert to the standard two-day, 34-orbit approach profile, which was completed successfully. Since then, three other Soyuz crews have flawlessly completed the fast rendezvous profile.
“Same-day” rendezvous and docking are nothing new. In September 1966, Gemini XI astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad and Dick Gordon accomplished a rendezvous and docking with an Agena target vehicle just 85 minutes and a single orbit after launch. Several years later, during the Skylab era, crews followed an expedited rendezvous lasting nine hours to reach their home in space. However, since the late 1970s, in the interests of propellant economy, most crews—including shuttle-Mir and ISS flights—spent between one and two days in transit, prior to docking.
At the launch pad, Padalka, Kornienko, and Kelly will be ensconced into their specially contoured seats aboard the Soyuz TMA-16M descent module about two hours before liftoff. Their launch vehicle—a descendent of Chief Designer Sergei Korolev’s R-7 missile—will undergo final checks and will be fully fueled with a mixture of liquid oxygen and a refined form of rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) by T-3 hours. After loading, the oxygen will enter a “topping mode,” whereby all cryogenic boil-off will be rapidly replenished until shortly before launch. This will ensure that all tanks remain at “Flight Ready” levels, prior to the ignition of the RD-108 engine of the first stage and the RD-107 engines of the four tapering, strap-on boosters.
In the final 15 minutes, the Launch Abort System (LAS) will be armed and transferred to Automatic Mode, the crew will be instructed to close their visors and Padalka’s controls will be activated. Internal avionics will be initiated and the on-board flight recorders will be spooled-up to monitor the Soyuz-FG’s myriad systems throughout ascent. Inside the control bunker, the “launch key”—an actual, physical key—will be inserted in order to enable the ordnance to support Soyuz TMA-16M on its voyage. This will be followed by the completion of nitrogen purging, the pressurization of the rocket’s propellant tanks, and the continued topping of cryogens. A minute before liftoff the Soyuz-FG will transfer to internal power, and at T-10 seconds the engine turbopumps will attain full speed. By five seconds, the engines of the core and tapering boosters will roar to life and quickly reach full power. This will produce a retraction of the fueling tower and a liftoff into the darkened Baikonur sky at 1:42:59 a.m. local time on Saturday, 28 March (3:42:59 p.m. EDT on Friday, 27 March).
Rising rapidly, the rocket will exceed 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h), within a minute of clearing the tower, and at T+118 seconds the four tapering boosters will be jettisoned, leaving the core stage alone to continue the boost into low-Earth orbit. By the two-minute mark, Padalka, Kornienko, and Kelly will surpass 3,350 mph (5,390 km/h), and, shortly thereafter, the escape tower and launch shroud will separate, exposing Soyuz TMA-16M to the near-vacuum of the rarefied high atmosphere. Four minutes and 58 seconds after leaving the desolate steppe of Central Asia, the core booster will separate at an altitude of 105.6 statute miles (170 km) and the third and final stage will ignite, accelerating the Soyuz to a velocity of more than 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h). By the time the third stage separates, nine minutes into the flight, the crew will enter an orbit of about 125 x 160 miles (200 x 260 km), inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator, and will begin the process of deploying their craft’s communications and navigation antennas and solar arrays.
Four maneuvering “burns” will be required to raise the apogee of this orbit to reach the operational altitude of the ISS. The first burn (DV-1) should occur 45 minutes into the mission, after which a second burn (DV-2) is timed at 90 minutes after liftoff. These will be followed by another pair of burns, later in the rendezvous sequence, which should position Soyuz TMA-16M for an on-time docking at the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module at 9:36 p.m. EDT Friday, about five hours and 54 minutes into the flight. Following standard pressure and leak checks, the hatches will be opened at about 11:15 p.m. and the trio will be greeted by the incumbent Expedition 43 crew of Commander Terry Virts of NASA and his crewmates, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti, who have been aboard the ISS since November 2014. The arrival of Padalka, Kornienko, and Kelly will thus restore the space station to its full, six-person capability, through mid-May 2015.
With the arrival of the new crew, two Soyuz vehicles will be in residence, together with two Russian resupply craft—Progress M-25M, launched last October, and Progress M-26M, launched in mid-February 2015—although there will be a steady ebb and flow of unpiloted visitors from SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corp., and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) throughout the One-Year Mission.
The first visitor is expected to be SpaceX’s sixth Dragon cargo ship (CRS-6), which is presently targeted for launch atop a Falcon 9 v1.1 booster from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., no sooner than 10 April. Following a two-day solo flight, the Dragon—which is flying under the language of a $1.6 billion, 12-flight Commercial Resupply Services contract, signed between NASA and SpaceX, back in December 2008—will position itself within range of the space station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm, whereupon it will grappled and berthed at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Harmony node. Current projections anticipate that CRS-6 will remain attached to the ISS until 11 May, after which it will return to a parachute-assisted splashdown and recovery in the Pacific Ocean, off the California coastline.
In keeping with ISS tradition, a change of command ceremony will be held in May, as outgoing skipper Virts relinquishes on-orbit leadership of the station to Padalka, who will head the new Expedition 44 through September. In doing so, Padalka will become the first person to command as many as four long-duration ISS expeditions. Virts, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti will then board their Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft and return to Earth on 14 May, completing more than 171 days in orbit. Two weeks later, on 26/27 May, Soyuz TMA-17M will roar into orbit from Baikonur, carrying the second half of the Expedition 44 crew—Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, U.S. astronaut Kjell Lindgren, and Japan’s Kimiya Yui—and restore Padalka’s team back up to six-person strength.
By this time, Padalka will have established himself as the second most experienced spacefarer in history, having launched in fourth place and eclipsed Sergei Avdeyev on 3 May to enter third place and surpassed Aleksandr Kaleri on 25 May to enter second place. A month later, on 28 June, he will exceed the 803-day cumulative experience record of fellow cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, thereby becoming the most flight-seasoned spacefarer in the world. When he returns to Earth on 11 September, Padalka will have accrued 878 days of experience across his five career space missions, which represents about 2.4 years of his 57 years of life, spent off the planet.
In the meantime, the unpiloted visiting vehicles will continue to come and go. Russia’s Progress M-25M will depart the station’s Pirs module on 25 April and be replaced, three days later, by the new Progress M-27M, whilst SpaceX’s third Dragon of the year (CRS-7) is expected to fly no sooner than 22 June. Upon berthing at the Harmony nadir interface, this particular Dragon will be robotically relieved of its most critical payload—the first International Docking Adapter (IDA-1)—which will eventually be attached to the Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-2 at the forward port of the Harmony node, in support of NASA’s Commercial Crew needs. As part of the Commercial Crew Program, NASA requires two IDAs to accommodate Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon V-2 piloted spacecraft, the first of which are scheduled to fly within the next two years.
Although the transfer of IDA-1 from Dragon’s unpressurized Trunk to the PMA-2 interface will be a robotic operation, involving Canadarm2, the installation of the hardware will require a spacewalk (U.S. EVA-32) in July by Kelly and Lindgren. Clad in Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs), with Kelly designated “EV1” and sporting red stripes on the legs of his suit, and Lindgren (“EV2”) in a pure-white suit, both astronauts will be embarking on their first career spacewalks.
As described in a previous AmericaSpace article, ISS Program requirements call for the availability of two docking ports for Commercial Crew utilization and two berthing locations for unpiloted visiting craft, including SpaceX’s Dragon, Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus, and Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV). With the forward and zenith ports of Harmony thus earmarked for the two IDAs and for Commercial Crew needs, it becomes necessary to “open up” a second Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) interface for unpiloted craft. As a result, the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM)—which has resided at the nadir CBM of the Unity node since February 2011—will be robotically detached in June 2015 and transferred to the forward CBM of the Tranquility node. Preparations for this movement occupied part of Expedition 42 Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore’s time during EVA-30 on 25 February, when he removed launch locks, opened camera flaps, and verified the satisfactory opening-and-closure performance of the CBM “petals.” The movement of the Leonardo PMM will thus allow visiting Dragons and Cygnuses to berth at both the Unity nadir and the Harmony nadir ports.
A “hot and heavy” summer of resupply will continue, with the departure of the CRS-7 Dragon from Harmony nadir on 24 July, followed by the departure of Progress M-27M from Pirs a few days later on 4 August. The latter will be quickly replaced by Progress M-28M, which is presently targeted to launch out of Baikonur on 6/7 August, after which Japan’s fifth HTV—nicknamed “Kounotori” (“White Stork”)—will follow atop a H-IIB booster from Tanegashima Island, about 70 miles (115 km) south of Kyushu, on 17 August. It will be the first HTV to fly since August 2013, following a multitude of payload delays, and will initially berth at Harmony nadir on 23 August, before being robotically transferred to Unity nadir on 25 August, where it will remain for the majority of its six-week stay. It will then be robotically moved back to Harmony on 5 October, for unberthing on 7 October and a destructive descent in Earth’s upper atmosphere. This unusual, two-step berthing/unberthing protocol provides clearance for a dual-vehicle berthing simulation, which will see HTV-5 and SpaceX’s CRS-8 Dragon jointly attached to the ISS in September-October. Additionally, as explained by NASA’s Rob Navias, HTV-5 “needs to berth and unberth from Harmony nadir due to proximity operations equipment interference” issues.
Concurrently, Progress M-26M will depart the aft longitudinal port of the station’s Zvezda module on 26 August, freeing up this docking interface for the infrequent presence of as many as three piloted Soyuz craft and a “direct handover” of crew members in the first half of September. The departure of the Progress will allow 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, thus making room for the arrival of Soyuz TMA-18M on 1 September. Under normal circumstances, six-person ISS expeditions follow an “indirect rotation,” whereby a given three-member subset of the crew departs, temporarily reducing the station’s population to three, after which a new crew arrives to restore it to six.
ISS Program managers prefer to utilize the lateral Poisk and Rassvet modules for Soyuz dockings, in order that the Zvezda aft—which runs along the station’s longitudinal axis—can be employed by Progress or Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs) for orbital reboost maneuvers. Since Soyuz TMA-16M is due to depart the ISS on 11 September and the next Progress is not expected to arrive until late October, a brief presence at Zvezda’s aft port will not pose any visiting vehicle traffic complications. Soyuz TMA-16M will return to Earth with Padalka, Mogensen and Brightman, with on-orbit leadership of the ISS handed over to Scott Kelly, who will command Expedition 45 through early November and Expedition 46 through early March 2016.
Even whilst the ISS plays host to nine members, visiting vehicle traffic is expected to continue. SpaceX’s fourth Dragon flight of the year (CRS-8) is scheduled to fly on 2 September and arrive at the station two days later, bringing the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) for robotic installation on the aft CBM of the Tranquility node. As noted in a recent article by AmericaSpace’s Talia Landman, the BEAM will remain affixed to the ISS for two years, providing 565 cubic feet (15.9 cubic meters) of pressurized volume, although it will only be accessed periodically by the crew, in order to conduct routine inspections and the collection of data. Dragon will be unberthed and detached from Harmony nadir on 4 October, allowing HTV-5 to be relocated to the same interface for its own unberthing and departure, a few days later.
October 2015 will prove a significant month in U.S. space endurance records, as Kelly officially becomes the most experienced NASA astronaut on the 14th, surpassing Mike Fincke’s cumulative 381-day total, and will go on to exceed Mike Lopez-Alegria’s accomplishment of 215 days in a single mission on the 28th. By the time Kelly returns to Earth on 3 March 2016, he will have accrued 522 days in orbit across his four missions, placing him in 17th place on the list of the world’s most seasoned spacefarers. On only a handful of occasions have any U.S. astronauts ever broken into the coveted “Top Twenty,” a list overwhelmingly dominated by Soviet and Russian cosmonauts for more than three decades. Kornienko, whose space-time is four days less than Kelly, will earn a place on the list at No. 18, whilst Gennadi Padalka will sit securely at No. 1.
October is also expected to see two more U.S. spacewalks—EVA-33 and EVA-34—both of which are expected to feature Kelly and Lindgren. Both EVAs will come shortly after the robotic relocation of the Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-3 from its current berth on the Tranquility node to the zenith interface of the Harmony node, in support of the installation of IDA-2 and future Commercial Crew usage. At a recent press conference at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, AmericaSpace’s Michael Galindo asked about the crew complement for the EVAs. “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, 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.”
In fact, the two EVAs are planned to occur only days before the scheduled return of Soyuz TMA-17M and its crew of Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui to Earth on 5 November, closing out a 163-day mission, which raises the possibility that they may indeed slip until later in the year. With their departure, the ISS will transition to Expedition 46, still under Kelly’s command, and the crew will be restored to six-strong on 20 November when Soyuz TMA-19M launches from Baikonur and docks at the Rassvet module. Although the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) members of the crew—NASA’s Tim Kopra and British astronaut Tim Peake, representing the European Space Agency (ESA)—have remained constant, since their assignment in 2013, Soyuz TMA-19M has featured no fewer than three contenders for its command position. Initially, Sergei Zalyotin was assigned to the crew, before resigning from the cosmonaut corps in May 2014, and being replaced by Yuri Malenchenko. However, recent comments by Novosti Kosmonavtiki suggest that Malenchenko may have been replaced by another cosmonaut, Anatoli Ivanishin, who is already in training for a six-month mission in 2016.
Whatever the eventual makeup of the Soyuz TMA-19M crew, they will form the final element of the One-Year Mission, remaining aboard the station through mid-May 2016. Those final months are expected to be filled with activity, with Orbital Sciences’ fourth Cygnus cargo mission (ORB-4) targeting a 19 November launch, atop United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. This became necessary, following last year’s catastrophic failure of Orbital’s Antares launch vehicle, which exploded seconds after liftoff, destroying the ORB-3 cargo craft, as highlighted dramatically in an AmericaSpace Photo Feature. In the aftermath of the failure, Orbital contracted with ULA for at least two Atlas V missions to deliver the fourth and fifth Cygnus cargo ships, as it seeks to fulfil the requirements of its eight-mission, $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. Present planning envisages the ORB-5 mission to launch on 1 March 2016, shortly before the return of Volkov, Kornienko, and Kelly to Earth.
With two CBMs now open for business for visiting vehicles, ORB-4 will be berthed at the Unity nadir interface on 24 November, after which SpaceX’s fifth and final Dragon mission of the year—CRS-9, targeted for a 5 December liftoff—will arrive at the Harmony nadir interface. One of Dragon’s primary payloads will be IDA-2, which will be robotically transferred to its attachment site atop PMA-3 on Harmony’s zenith port. Shortly thereafter, the final planned U.S. spacewalk of the year is expected to be conducted by Kelly and Kopra to complete the installation of the second International Docking Adapter. This will leave the ISS primed for the unpiloted test flights of the Commercial Crew vehicles, which may begin as soon as late 2016, and for the early piloted missions in mid-2017.
With the dawn of 2016, the final weeks of the One-Year Mission are expected to show no signs of slowing down. Both the CRS-9 Dragon and the ORB-4 Cygnus will be robotically detached from the station in January, closing out their respective missions, and on 2/3 March Volkov, Kornienko, and Kelly will board Soyuz TMA-18M and undock for the final time. Touching down on the barren steppe of Kazakhstan, Kelly will accrue 522 days in orbit across his four missions, Kornienko 518 days over two missions, and Volkov about 549 days, throughout his three-flight cosmonaut career.
Want to keep up-to-date with all things space? Be sure to “Like” AmericaSpace on Facebook and follow us on Twitter: @AmericaSpace