NASA and its International Partners (IPs) have officially postponed the return to Earth of the Soyuz TMA-15M crew—consisting of Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, U.S. astronaut Terry Virts and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti—for at least another three weeks. Announcements to this effect were jointly made yesterday (Tuesday, 12 May) by the European Space Agency (ESA) and by NASA itself, stressing that the “core” of the Expedition 43 crew would remain aboard the International Space Station (ISS) “until the beginning of June” and that the recent Progress M-27M failure “has put further launches to the station on hold, pending the results of an investigation”. At the same time, it was reported that Roscosmos would provide an update to its investigation on 22 May, after which more precise dates would be finalized. In the meantime, the upcoming Soyuz TMA-17M piloted flight has been delayed from 26 May until late July, with Russia’s Progress M-28M cargo ship expected to move forward from early August to the beginning of July. More recently, on Wednesday, English soprano Sarah Brightman announced that she will no longer fly aboard Soyuz TMA-18M in September.
As described in a recent AmericaSpace article, the Soyuz TMA-15M landing delay surfaced last week, following the much publicized failure of Progress M-27M, shortly after achieving low-Earth orbit. Launched on 28 April from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Progress—which marked the 150th flight in a series of cargo ships which, over more than 37 years, have serviced the Soviet Union’s Salyut 6 and Salyut 7 space stations, Russia’s Mir and today’s multi-national ISS—was initially scheduled to follow a six-hour, four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile, ahead of an automated docking at the Pirs module.
Although Progress M-27M achieved low-Earth orbit, it suffered a malfunction towards the end of its Soyuz-2 booster’s upper stage “burn”, just prior to spacecraft separation, which caused a rotational spin and generated a large debris field, totaling as many as 44 discrete objects at one point. Intermittent communications provided flight controllers with limited telemetry, which indicated that the spacecraft had satisfactorily deployed its electricity-generating solar arrays, but no confirmation that its Kurs (“Course”) rendezvous antennas had unfurled. In keeping with procedures which are common to both unpiloted Progress and crewed Soyuz flights, the six-hour fast rendezvous profile was abandoned in favor of a standard two-day approach regime.
However, this quickly proved untenable, in view of the shaky communications and no success in efforts to overcome Progress M-27M’s uncontrollable spin. By 29 April, Roscosmos reported that the spacecraft was effectively lost, having sustained multiple systems failures and depressurized propellant lines, and that it would likely re-enter Earth’s atmosphere to destruction at some stage between 7-11 May. At length, the spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere in the small hours of 8 May, burning up over a sparse region of the Pacific Ocean, between 560-2,000 miles (350-1,300 km) off the west coast of Chile.
Since the unpiloted Progress and crewed Soyuz are both launched atop similar variants of the same “family” of boosters, it was considered prudent to postpone the Soyuz TMA-17M mission—crewed by Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, U.S. astronaut Kjell Lindgren and Japan’s Kimiya Yui—from its original 26 May target until no sooner than the latter half of July. Additionally, it was decided that the next use of the Soyuz booster will be Progress M-28M, which was originally scheduled to fly from Baikonur on 6 August, but has been advanced to the first week of July. However, it was noted that the ISS is in no danger, from a consumables perspective, and is sufficiently stocked until the fall.
“Under our laws, we cannot make a manned launch next, so we suggested, and Roscosmos supported us, that it would be expedient to launch a Progress cargo ship,” explained Vladimir Solovyov, flight director of the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS). “A different carrier rocket with a different third stage will be used. Preliminarily, we plan to launch a Soyuz with another expedition in late July. We will try to complete the program, to keep a year’s flight, and everything linked with it.” Roscosmos currently expects to issue an update on the continuing Progress M-27M failure investigation on 22 May, after which future ISS-related launch and landing dates will begin to firm up.
However, it has been suggested by the website Novosti Kosmonavtiki that Shkaplerov, Virts and Cristoforetti will likely depart the ISS aboard Soyuz TMA-15M on around 11 June, concluding a 199-day flight, which will represent the second-longest expedition in the space station’s history. It will also establish Cristoforetti as the most experienced Italian spacefarer, the most experienced non-U.S. female astronaut and holder of the record for the longest single space mission ever undertaken by a woman. Prior to their departure, Virts will turn over command of the ISS to Russian cosmonaut Gennadi Padalka—who, alongside One-Year crewmen Scott Kelly of NASA and Russia’s Mikhail Kornienko—has been aboard the station since late March. Commanding Expedition 44 through mid-September, Padalka will become the first human to lead as many as four ISS expeditions and on 28 June will surpass Sergei Krikalev to become the world’s most seasoned spacefarer.
According to Novosti Kosmonavtiki, the Progress M-28M launch is provisionally scheduled for 3 July, after which it will likely follow a six-hour, four-orbit “fast rendezvous” to dock with the ISS, with Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui expected to fly aboard Soyuz TMA-17M around 24 July, returning the space station to its full six-man strength after more than six weeks at a reduced, three-man capacity. On May 8, a source in the rocket and space industry source told TASS that Roscosmos planned to adjust the program of flights to the International Space Station due to the recent accident involving the Progress M-27M spacecraft. “It is suggested that the return from orbit of the expedition which is currently there be postponed from May 14 to June, then, in late June – early July, a Progress cargo spacecraft be blasted off to the ISS, and then, in the last ten days of July, a manned Soyuz launch be made,” the source said, adding the proposal had forwarded by a Roscosmos working group but had not yet been approved.Remarkably, at present, most other events for the summer retain their original target dates, including the launch of SpaceX’s CRS-7 mission on 19 June, the mid-August flight of Japan’s fifth H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-5) and the 1 September liftoff of Soyuz TMA-18M from Baikonur.
Earlier today (Wednesday, 13 May), it was announced by English soprano Sarah Brightman that she has decided to postpone her flight to the ISS and will consequently withdraw from the Soyuz TMA-18M crew roster. Citing “personal family reasons”, 54-year-old Brightman—famed for her stage roles in Cats and Phantom of the Opera—was first identified as a possible crew member on the mission in the fall of 2012 and was later joined by Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Denmark’s first astronaut Andreas Mogensen. Her withdrawal comes only months after she missed the beginning of training at Star City, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, back in January, due to family reasons, and other reports suggest that she had “unexpectedly left” the training center late in April. As the story broke on Wednesday afternoon, rumor abounded that Brightman’s mission had run into difficulties with its key sponsors. However, it would appear that her departure was sudden, for only last month Brightman participated in zero-gravity parabolic flights and on 24 April tweeted: “Training continues in Star City! I am learning so many new things every day!”
“She would like to express her extreme gratitude to Roscosmos, Energia, Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, Star City, NASA and all the cosmonauts and astronauts, for their support during this exciting time in her life,” it was noted on the soprano’s Facebook page.
“Since 2012, Sarah has shared her story of a lifelong dream to fly to space. Her international fame as the world’s best-selling soprano has enabled her message to circle the globe, inspiring others to pursue their own dreams,” said Eric Anderson, Co-Founder and Chairman of Space Adventures, Ltd., which brokered Brightman’s rumored $51 million flight. “We’ve seen firsthand her dedication to every aspect of her spaceflight training and to date, has passed all of her training and medical tests. We applaud her determination and we’ll continue to support her as she pursues a future spaceflight opportunity.”
Had she flown, Brightman would have become the eighth private Spaceflight Participant (SFP) and only the second woman, after U.S.-Iranian Anousheh Ansari. It was understood that she had been working with her ex-husband, Andrew Lloyd Webber, on a song which she would perform aboard the ISS. The language of Brightman’s announcement suggests that she regards this as a “postponement”, although the opportunity for another SFP slot in the busy ISS crewing manifest seems unlikely until at least 2017. Although Japanese advertising entrepreneur Satoshi Takamatsu, aged 52, has trained since January as Brightman’s backup for the SFP slot, it remains to be seen if he will join Volkov and Mogensen aboard Soyuz TMA-18M when they launch on 1 September. There exists the alternate possibility that the third seat aboard the spacecraft might be utilized for ISS supplies, as has been seen on several occasions in the past.
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