Second-Longest Space Station Expedition to End Thursday

The Soyuz TMA-15M crew, clad in their Sokol (Falcon) launch and entry suits, will return to Earth on Thursday, after more than 199 days in orbit. Photo Credit: European Space Agency (ESA)
The Soyuz TMA-15M crew, clad in their Sokol (Falcon) launch and entry suits, will return to Earth on Thursday, after more than 199 days in orbit. Photo Credit: European Space Agency (ESA)

After more than 28 weeks aloft, the “core” of Expedition 43—the 43rd crew to live and work aboard the International Space Station (ISS) since November 2000—will return to Earth on Thursday, 11 June, wrapping up the second-longest single voyage ever undertaken on the multi-national outpost. Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, U.S. astronaut Terry Virts, and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti, are currently targeted to undock their Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft from the space station’s Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module at 6:20 a.m. EDT Thursday and will touch down on the desolate steppe of north-central Kazakhstan about 3.5 hours later, at 9:43 a.m. EDT (7:43 p.m. local time). In readiness for the departure, on Wednesday morning Virts will transfer command of the ISS to Russia’s Gennadi Padalka, who will lead the station through mid-September.

With Thursday’s return to Earth Terry Virts will hold the record for the 2nd longest U.S. piloted space mission, with about 199.6 days, just 16 days shy of Mike Lopez-Alegria’s 215-day record on Expedition 14. In doing so, he will surpass Mike Barratt, who spent 198.7 days in orbit on Expedition 19/20 and who now moves to 3rd place on the U.S. list.

Samantha Cristoforetti's "Goodnight from space" images have provided daily reminders of the beauty of our Home Planet. Photo Credit: Samantha Cristoforetti/NASA/Twitter
Samantha Cristoforetti’s “Goodnight from space” images have provided daily reminders of the beauty of our Home Planet. Photo Credit: Samantha Cristoforetti/NASA/Twitter

Originally scheduled to return to Earth on 14 May, after 171 days in orbit, the landing of the crew was delayed by four weeks, due to the failure of Russia’s Progress M-27M cargo spacecraft. The latter rose from Baikonur Cosmodrome, atop a similar launch vehicle to the one used to deliver piloted Soyuz crews into orbit, on 28 April, laden with 5,196 pounds (2,357 kg) of food, water, supplies, hardware, and experiments for the Expedition 43 crew. However, a third-stage malfunction and the possibility of some kind of explosion imparted a rotational spin and generated a large debris field, whose consequences proved catastrophic. Control was effectively lost and the doomed spacecraft sustained multiple systems failures and depressurized propellant lines, before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere to a fiery destruction on 8 May.

At the time of the failure, the next piloted mission to the ISS was scheduled to launch from Baikonur on 26 May, with Soyuz TMA-17M ferrying Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, U.S. astronaut Kjell Lindgren, and Japan’s Kimiya Yui to the station. As Russia dug into an in-depth investigation of the failure, all Soyuz-derived launches were placed on hold, including Soyuz TMA-17M and an unpiloted mission, carrying a Kobalt-M photographic reconnaissance satellite from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the far-northern Arkhangelsk Oblast. The flight of Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui was postponed until no sooner than 24 July. Had Virts, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti returned to Earth as planned on 14 May, this would have created an undesirably protracted 2.5-month period with the ISS at a reduced, three-man strength, crewed by Russian cosmonaut Gennadi Padalka and One-Year spacefarers Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly. In order to limit the length of time that the station would be at minimum crew strength—and also aware of the approximately six-month orbital life of Soyuz TMA-15M, which has been in space since late-November—the return of Virts, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti was extended as far to the right as possible.

Following the release of preliminary findings into the cause of the accident on 22 May, Russia executed a surprise launch of the Kobalt-M mission, atop a Soyuz booster, from Plesetsk on 5 June, successfully delivering the classified photographic reconnaissance payload into low-Earth orbit. This was believed to be the 10th flight of a member of the Kobalt-M family of satellites, whose first launch occurred in September 2004. These satellites utilize photographic film, rather than digital imaging, to acquire better quality results, which are typically returned to Earth after 79-130 days aboard a small re-entry capsule. The Kobalt-M launch implies that the issue which doomed Progress M-27M has now been satisfactorily resolved, and the next ISS-bound mission, the Progress M-28M cargo ship, is targeted to fly no earlier than 3 July from Baikonur.

With their own mission thus extended, Virts, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti were able to secure for themselves a number of impressive achievements, not least of which was flying the second-longest single ISS increment of all time, ending just 16 days shy of the 215-day record set by Expedition 15 crewmen Mike Lopez-Alegria of NASA and Russia’s Mikhail Tyurin in April 2007. In doing so, Virts becomes the United States’ 14th most experienced astronaut, whilst Shkaplerov secures almost a full year in space, spread across his two long-duration ISS missions. Perhaps more significantly, Cristoforetti smashed fellow countryman Paolo Nespoli’s 174-day cumulative record to become Italy’s most seasoned spacefarer on 17 May, then passed Russia’s Yelena Kondakova on 21 May to become the most experienced non-U.S. female spacefarer, then surpassed Dutchman Andre Kuipers’ 194-day achievement on 5 June to become holder of the longest voyage ever undertaken by a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut, and, finally, a mere 24 hours later, exceeded U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams to seize the crown for the longest single mission by a woman.

As described on his Twitter feed, Terry Virts has spent part of his free time in the last few days observing the glorious Home Planet—watching noctilucent clouds with Scott Kelly on Monday morning, completing his 100th Vine video from space, observing the progress of Hurricane Blanca to the south of Mexico and expressing wonderment at what orbital sunrises might look like around other worlds. Many of these observations were conducted from the station’s multi-windowed cupola, which now enjoys a virtually unobstructed view of the Home Planet and of the entire Earth-facing (or “nadir”) side of the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS), following the recent relocation of the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM). “It is easy,” he wrote on Sunday, in a tweet which accompanied a spectacular view of a cloud-bedecked Earth, “to find tranquility from the cupola.” He also expressed a measure of sorrow about leaving the magical environment which he and his crewmates have called home for more than six months. “I’m really going to miss sleeping in weightlessness,” Virts tweeted last Friday. “It is absolutely wonderful.”

Yesterday (Monday), the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft was reawakened after more than six months in hibernation, with critical thruster tests, ahead of Thursday's return to Earth. Photo Credit: Samantha Cristoforetti/NASA/Twitter
Yesterday (Monday), the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft was reawakened after more than six months in hibernation, with critical thruster tests, ahead of Thursday’s return to Earth. Photo Credit: Samantha Cristoforetti/NASA/Twitter

Clearly, the additional 28 days added onto the expedition of Virts, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti was put to good use, with expanded scientific research, the unberthing and departure of SpaceX’s CRS-6 Dragon cargo ship, and the earlier-than-planned relocation of the Leonardo PMM from the Unity nadir port to Tranquility forward, in anticipation of the delivery of International Docking Adapters (IDAs) and future Commercial Crew operations. At the same time, however, the trio—who represent the air forces of the United States, Russia, and Italy—have spent their free time acquiring stunning imagery of the iridescence of life on their home world: from fishing vessels plying the waters between Vietnam and Hong Kong to the “treat for the eyes” presented by each pass over the Algerian desert, and from Anton Shkaplerov’s stunning view of Patagonian glaciers in South America to Cristoforetti’s regular “Buona notte dallo spazio” (“Goodnight from space”) salutations, always accompanied by a spectacular view of Earth.

Over the past couple of weeks, the crew has stepped up their exercise regime as they prepare their bodies for the punishing return to terrestrial gravity, after more than six months exposed to the strange weightless environment of low-Earth orbit. On 26 May, Shkaplerov tweeted a photograph of himself working in the Chibis lower-body negative pressure device, which serves to draw fluids into the legs as a countermeasure for the effects of “normal” Earthly gravity, and on Monday, 8 June, the crew executed a full-up test of Soyuz TMA-15M’s thrusters, to ensure that their spacecraft was healthy for the return home. “Here she is, our #Soyuz,” tweeted Cristoforetti. “It’s been sleeping for over 6 months, it’s time to wake her up.” Tomorrow (Wednesday), at about 10:40 a.m. EDT, Virts will ceremonially draw down the curtain on his own Expedition 43 and transfer the mantle of command to Gennadi Padalka, who will lead Expedition 44 through mid-September.

The crew’s final day in orbit will be spent packing away the remainder of their equipment and personal items aboard Soyuz TMA-15M, with final farewells anticipated at 2:30 a.m. EDT Thursday. Hatches will close about a half-hour later and undocking of the spacecraft from the Rassvet module will take place at 6:20 a.m., kicking off a 3.5-hour return from orbit to the desolate steppe of north-central Kazakhstan. During that period of free-flight, Shkaplerov, Virts, and Cristoforetti will execute a 4.5-minute deorbit “burn” of their engines at 8:51 a.m., after which they will jettison their spherical orbital module and cylindrical instrument module. With the three spacefarers ensconced inside the beehive-shaped descent module, they will thus be primed for the perilous hypersonic descent back through Earth’s “sensible” atmosphere.

Entry Interface (EI), at an approximate altitude of 400,000 feet (122 km), should be attained about a half-hour after the deorbit burn and will be highlighted by the rapid heating of the spacecraft’s outer surfaces through friction with the steadily thickening atmospheric gases. Eight minutes later, the descent module will streak, meteor-like, through the sky at a velocity in excess of 515 mph (830 km/h), heading for its touchdown point. This rate of descent will be arrested rapidly, thanks chiefly to the deployment of four parachutes, beginning about 15 minutes before it hits the ground. Two “pilot” chutes will be released, followed by a 258-square-foot (24-square-meter) drogue, which will slow the spacecraft to about 180 mph (290 km/h). Finally, the main canopy—with a fully deployed surface area of 10,764 square feet (1,000 square meters)—will be unfurled, shifting Soyuz TMA-15M’s attitude to a 30-degree angle, relative to the ground. This will steadily dissipate heat, then shift it back to a straight-vertical descent profile for landing. The main canopy will slow them to a stately 16.4 mph (26.4 km/h), still too fast for a safe landing. The turn will then come for the solid-fueled rockets in the descent module’s base, which will fire in the last two seconds to cushion the touchdown. Assuming all goes well, Shkaplerov, Virts, and Cristoforetti should reach terra firma for the first time in 199 days, 16 hours, and 42 minutes, and more than 3,180 orbits of Earth, at 7:43 p.m. local time (9:43 a.m. EDT) Thursday, 11 June. On-hand to greet them will be representatives from Roscosmos, ESA, and NASA, including Chief Astronaut Bob Behnken, who flew into Karaganda early Monday.

Many of Terry Virts' observations of Earth have been acquired from the multi-windowed cupola, which offers a virtually unobstructed view across the base of the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) and of vast swathes of the Home Planet. Photo Credit: NASA
Many of Terry Virts’ observations of Earth have been acquired from the multi-windowed cupola, which offers a virtually unobstructed view across the base of the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) and of vast swathes of the Home Planet. Photo Credit: NASA

Theirs has been a truly magnificent mission. Launched from a darkened Baikonur Cosmodrome at 3:01 a.m. local time last 24 November (4:01 p.m. EST on the 23rd), the crew accomplished a perfect docking with the Rassvet just six hours later, following a now-standard “fast rendezvous” profile. They were welcomed by the incumbent Expedition 42 of Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev and Yelena Serova, who had been aboard the ISS since 25 September. Over the following weeks, the joint crew made history as two women—Russia’s Serova and Italy’s Cristoforetti—spent Christmas and the New Year in orbit together.

They accomplished an enormous workload of scientific research, including about 170 U.S. investigations and 70 others provided by international scientists in the USOS alone, including the first 3-D printing operations aboard the space station. Kicking off 2015 was SpaceX’s fifth dedicated Dragon cargo mission (CRS-5), launched on 10 January, whilst other vehicles returned to Earth, including Europe’s fifth and last Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-5). Not everything ran according to plan, however, and a particularly troubling false alarm on 14 January forced the USOS crew to temporarily move over to the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS), amid fears of a possible ammonia leak. In February-March, Wilmore and Virts supported a trio of EVAs to lay Common Communications for Visiting Vehicles (C2V2) cables and antennas, lubricate the “sticky” Canadarm2 Latching End Effector (LEE), and outfit the forward and aft Common Berthing Mechanisms (CBMs) of the Tranquility node for the Leonardo PMM relocation and the subsequent arrival of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM).

Wilmore, Samokutyayev, and Serova returned to Earth aboard their Soyuz TMA-14M spacecraft on 11/12 March, after transferring control of the ISS to Virts and inaugurating Expedition 43. In accepting command, Virts praised the achievements of his predecessors and noted that Expedition 43 would be “a short expedition, but it’s going to be busy.” With the benefit of hindsight, these words proved ironic, for little could Virts, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti have foreseen how long their mission would actually be. Two weeks after the old crew had departed, the Soyuz TMA-16M crew of Padalka, Kornienko, and Kelly were launched and docked successfully at the ISS, restoring the station’s crew back up to six. April was characterized primarily by the arrival of SpaceX’s CRS-6 Dragon, but it was the failure of Russia’s Progress M-27M cargo ship on the 28th which threatened to throw the ISS manifest for 2015 into disarray.

View of the space station's cupola, ablaze with lights, which has provided the base for supporting numerous Visiting Vehicle (VV) operations and Earth observations. Photo Credit: NASA
View of the space station’s cupola, ablaze with lights, which has provided the base for supporting numerous Visiting Vehicle (VV) operations and Earth observations. Photo Credit: NASA

By the end of the first week in May, it was apparent that the Soyuz booster would be grounded from ISS-bound missions for some weeks and the expedition of Virts, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti was extended until “early June,” before eventually settling on a target landing date of the 11th. At the same time, by pushing the launch of the Soyuz TMA-17M crew into late July, a “window” of time was opened to allow NASA to press ahead with the major reconfiguration of the USOS, and the Leonardo PMM relocation—originally targeted for no earlier than mid-June—was advanced to 27 May. The extension also meant that a full USOS crew of three members was aboard for the unberthing and departure of CRS-6.

Following the return of Virts, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti to Earth on Thursday, the ISS will be left in the hands of the “core” crew of Expedition 44, who have been in orbit since late March and their own launch aboard Soyuz TMA-16M. Gennadi Padalka becomes the first human to command the ISS on as many as four occasions and, on 28 June, will eclipse fellow cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev’s 803-day accomplishment to become the most experienced spacefarer in history. (By the time Padalka returns to Earth, he will have accrued 878 days aloft, which represents 2.4 years of his life.) His crewmates Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly are now a quarter of the way through the first year-long expedition of the ISS era and will return to Earth in March 2016.

With SpaceX targeted to launch its CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship on 26 June—the seventh of at least 12 vehicles despatched under the language of the $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract, signed with NASA, back in December 2008—the opening weeks of Expedition 44 will mark the first occasion that a visitor to the station’s U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) has arrived, to be greeted by just one USOS crew member. On all previous instances in which a Dragon, an Orbital Sciences Cygnus or a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) has arrived at the USOS, at least two USOS crew members have been in residence aboard the multi-national outpost. “Kelly can conduct the grapple and berthing by himself,” NASA’s Rob Navias told AmericaSpace. “Padalka will monitor Dragon’s systems as Kelly’s backup, but will not be involved in robotics, even though he has some robotics training. Kornienko will tend to Russian Segment systems during the rendezvous.”

The CRS-7 Dragon is carrying the first of two International Docking Adapters (IDA-1), for installation at the forward end of the Harmony node’s Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-2 interface. However, according to SpaceX, Dragons can remain berthed to the space station for a maximum up to five weeks. The installation of IDA-1 requires a combined EVA/robotics operation and a spacewalk (U.S. EVA-32) is scheduled to be performed by astronauts Kelly and Kjell Lindgren. Since the arrival of Lindgren at the ISS is not anticipated before 24 July, it raises the likelihood that the IDA-1 removal from Dragon’s unpressurized “trunk,” and EVA-32 will occur very soon after Lindgren and his fellow Soyuz TMA-17M crewmates arrive on station, perhaps in late-July or early-August.

In spite of the movement of the ISS manifest, most other key dates remain unchanged, with Soyuz TMA-18M and its crew of Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Denmark’s first astronaut, Andreas Mogensen still targeted to launch on 1 September. The recent withdrawal of English soprano Sarah Brightman from her Spaceflight Participant (SFP) seat raised the possibility that her backup, Japanese advertising entrepreneur Satoshi Takamatsu, would fly in her stead. At the time of writing, this has not been confirmed, and it remains entirely possible that Soyuz TMA-18M will launch as a two-man crew, with the third seat occupied by ISS-bound payloads and supplies. Certainly, Mogensen will return to Earth with Gennadi Padalka on 10/11 September, whilst Volkov will join Kelly and Kornienko for the second half of their year-long mission.

The delayed start to Soyuz TMA-17M looks set to push their own return to Earth further to the right, with Novosti Kosmonavtiki reporting that their mission will end on 22 December. Interestingly, the launch of the next crew—that of Soyuz TMA-19M, consisting of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, U.S. astronaut Tim Kopra, and Britain’s Tim Peake—has moved back from its original 20 November target to No Earlier Than (NET) 19 December. This will produce a second “direct handover” of expedition crew members in 2015, following the joint operations with Soyuz TMA-16M, Soyuz TMA-17M, and Soyuz TMA-18M in early September. Under normal circumstances, the ISS follows an “indirect” rotation of its six-member expeditions, whereby a given three-person subset departs, reducing the population to three, after which a fresh team arrives about two weeks later to restore the crew back up to six. Previous direct handovers between six-person expedition crews were rare, the last one having occurred in November 2013, for the primary purpose of taking a symbolic torch outside the ISS on a spacewalk to honor the Sochi Winter Olympics and return it promptly to Earth a few days later.

In the September case, a direct handover allows for Padalka to exchange seats with Volkov and ensure continuity for the One-Year Crew. It remains to be seen what the reason is for the December direct handover, with NASA commenting only that Roscosmos has yet to formally announce the revised launch schedule.


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