Clad in dark civilian suits, three soon-to-be spacefarers descended the aircraft steps at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 10 July, primed to become the latest—and somewhat belated—crew members bound for the International Space Station (ISS). Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, making his third orbital mission, will be joined by NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), for a five-month expedition whose very character has morphed significantly in recent weeks. Originally targeted to launch aboard Soyuz TMA-17M on 26/27 May, their flight was postponed in the aftermath of the Progress M-27M launch vehicle failure and in recent weeks has also been overshadowed by the catastrophic 28 June loss of SpaceX’s CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship, which was carrying the first International Docking Adapter (IDA-1) in support of future Commercial Crew operations.
As outlined in a previous AmericaSpace article, the schedule initially called for the Soyuz TMA-15M crew of Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, U.S. astronaut Terry Virts, and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti, to return to Earth on 14 May, completing their 171-day mission and leaving the ISS with a temporarily reduced population of Expedition 44 Commander Gennadi Padalka and One-Year crewmen Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko. With a handful of exceptions—most recently in November 2013—the station has followed this “indirect” rotation of its six-member expeditions, with the arrival of Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui as the second half of Expedition 44 anticipated about two weeks later. However, the failure of Progress M-27M to achieve orbit successfully raised concerns about a possible link between the failure of the third stage of its Soyuz-2.1a booster and the Soyuz-FG vehicle to be utilized by the Soyuz TMA-17M crew.
In response to the failure, the launch of Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui was postponed until the second half of July, and, in order to minimize the period of time that the space station would be at reduced crew strength, NASA and its International Partners (IP) agreed to keep Shkaplerov, Virts, and Cristoforetti in orbit, alongside Padalka, Kelly, and Kornienko through 11 June. Within weeks, Russia’s investigation into the cause of the failure has reached its conclusion, and another member of the Soyuz booster family successfully delivered a classified Kobalt-M photographic reconnaissance satellite into low-Earth orbit from Russia’s far-northern Plesetsk Cosmodrome on 5 June. This was followed by the launch of Progress M-28M from Baikonur on 3 July, which followed a longer-than-normal 48-hour rendezvous profile and successfully docked at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Pirs module on the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS).
By this time, of course, SpaceX’s CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship—embarking on the seventh of at least 12 dedicated Commercial Resupply Services missions to transport a total of 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) of equipment and supplies to the ISS—had been disastrously lost, just 139 seconds after departing Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on 28 June. This carried significant implications for upcoming operations aboard the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS), since CRS-7 was carrying the first of two International Docking Adapters (IDA-1) to provide the primary means by which Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s own Dragon V-2 would interface with the ISS, from mid-2017 onward. In fact, IDA-1 would have been robotically removed from Dragon’s trunk and “temp-stowed” on the Dextre Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator (SPDM) of the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm, before being installed onto the Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-2 at the forward end of the Harmony node during an EVA by Kelly (EV1) and Lindgren (EV2) on 17 August.
A second docking adapter (IDA-2) is currently expected to fly aboard the CRS-9 Dragon mission, whose own launch was originally targeted for December 2015, but which now appears likely to be delayed into January 2016. IDA-2 was originally intended to provide a backup docking interface and would have been mounted atop Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-3 at the space-facing (or “zenith”) port of Harmony. Since the IDAs are identical, it now seems that IDA-2 will be repurposed as the “primary” docking adapter, to be installed at the Harmony forward interface, with a replacement unit to be completed and launched at a late date to fulfil the “backup” role at Harmony zenith. “An IDA-3 will be built from spare parts,” NASA’s Rob Navias told AmericaSpace, but added that there was “no timetable” on when its completion or launch might occur. It is understood that IDA “qualification units” will form the backbone for IDA-3 and that the replacement docking adapter will fly aboard a future SpaceX Dragon.
The loss of the CRS-7 mission and the destruction of IDA-1 has inevitably impacted NASA’s plan to effect a timely reconfiguration of the USOS for Commercial Crew operations, whose target date for initial piloted test flight in mid-2017 has been placed under additional strain, in light of apparent Congressional reluctance to fully fund the program. Nevertheless, last week NASA named veteran astronauts Bob Behnken, Eric Boe, Suni Williams, and Doug Hurley—who boast eight previous shuttle and ISS missions and over 408 cumulative days in space between them—to the first Commercial Crew training group. Speaking in the hours after the CRS-7 anomaly, NASA ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini hinted that the launch of CRS-9 and IDA-2 might be brought forward from its December 2015 target date, depending upon the outcome of SpaceX’s FAA-overseen investigation, although Novosti Kosmonavtiki has suggested that the mission may not occur before January 2016.
The Soyuz TMA-17M crew had completed their final exams and were within days of traveling from the Star City cosmonauts’ training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, to the desolate steppe of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, when they were informed that their launch had been delayed by two months. This allowed them to press ahead with refresher training, and, last month, Lindgren participated in his final suited EVA run in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, “Last last #NBL run for @astro_kjell in preparation for spacewalk late summer with @StationCDRKelly,” tweeted Operations Engineer/Astronaut Instructor & EVA Flight Controller Scott Wray on 23 June, before signing off with “#proudinstructor.”
Last week, on 8 July, the Interdepartmental Commission approved Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui and their backups—Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, U.S. astronaut Tim Kopra, and Britain’s Tim Peake—for the upcoming mission and the two crew flew into Baikonur two days later. The respective commanders, Kononenko and Malenchenko, respectively declared their readiness to execute the mission to members of the State Commission and Technical Management. After a night’s rest, they plunged into inspections and fit-checks aboard their Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft at Site 254. “Under the supervision of specialists, the main and backup crews tested the equipment with which they will work in space,” it was explained. These activities included familiarizing themselves with the interior of the spacecraft, donning and doffing and leak-checking their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits and working with on-board equipment. In keeping with tradition, on 12 July the six men raised the national flags of Russia, the United States, Japan, and Kazakhstan, and Soyuz TMA-17M was delivered to the Spacecraft Assembly and Testing Facility the next day for final closeout operations.
When fully fueled, the spacecraft—which consists of a spherical orbital module, a cylindrical instrument module, and a beehive-shaped descent module for the crew—carries 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 control systems. After the installation of the aerodynamic payload shroud, Soyuz TMA-17M was installed atop the Soyuz-FG booster and transferred in a horizontal configuration to Site 1/5 at Baikonur.
With liftoff targeted for 3:02 a.m. local time on Thursday, 23 July (5:02 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, 22 July), Launch Day promises to be a long one for the prime and backup crews. They will be awakened about 8.5 hours before 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. Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui 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 opportunity to speak, face-to-face, with their families, albeit from behind glass screens. They will then depart Site 254, bound for the launch pad.
Like several of its predecessors, Soyuz TMA-17M will embark on a six-hour, four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile, to alleviate pressure on the crew. Earlier missions typically adopted 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 Site 1/5, Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui will be ensconced into their specially contoured seats aboard the Soyuz TMA-17M descent module about two hours before liftoff. As the Commander, Kononenko will occupy the center seat, flanked by Yui to his left side in the Flight Engineer-1 position and Lindgren to his right as Flight Engineer-2. Their launch vehicle is a descendent of Chief Designer Sergei Korolev’s R-7 missile and will undergo final checks and be fully fueled with a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1,” together with liquid oxygen. The latter will enter a “topping” mode after loading and all cryogenic boil-off will be continuously replenished until just before T-0. 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 and the crew will be instructed to close their visors. At this point, Kononenko’s controls will be activated. Internal avionics will be initiated and the on-board flight recorders will be spooled-up to monitor the myriad systems of the Soyuz-FG booster throughout ascent. Inside the control bunker, the “launch key”—an actual, physical key—will be inserted in order to enable the rocket’s ordnance. This will be followed by nitrogen purging, pressurization of the propellant tanks, and final cryogenic topping.
A minute before T-0, the Soyuz-FG will transition to Internal Power, and, at T-10 seconds, the engine turbopumps will attain full speed. Five seconds later, 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 3:02 a.m. local time Thursday, 23 July (5:02 p.m. EDT Wednesday, 22 July).
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, Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui will surpass 3,350 mph (5,390 km/h), and, shortly thereafter, the escape tower and launch shroud will separate, exposing Soyuz TMA-17M 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 spacecraft 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-17M for an on-time docking at the station’s Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module at 8:43 a.m. Baikonur time Thursday (10:43 p.m. EDT Wednesday), about five hours and 51 minutes into the flight. Following standard pressure and leak checks, the hatches will be opened about 90 minutes later and Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui will be greeted by the incumbent Expedition 44 crew of Commander Gennadi Padalka of Russia and One-Year crewmen Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly, who will be entering their 118th day in orbit. Padalka—who has been the world’s most seasoned spacefarer since 28 June—is expected to return to Earth in mid-September, whilst Kornienko and Kelly will remain aboard the ISS until March 2016.
With the arrival of the new crew, two Soyuz vehicles will thus be in residence at the space station, together with a pair of Russian resupply craft—Progress M-26M, launched in February 2015, and the recently launched Progress M-28M—although a steady ebb and flow of unpiloted visitors is expected to occur through the year’s end. Progress M-26M is will depart on 14 August, after which Japan’s fifth H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-5) “Kounotori” (“White Stork”) is targeted to launch from Tanegashima Island on the 16th and be captured and robotically berthed by Canadarm2 at the nadir port of the Harmony node on the 20th. According to Novosti Kosmonavtiki, SpaceX’s CRS-8 Dragon cargo mission—whose payload includes the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM)—remains targeted to launch on 2 September, although all Falcon 9 v1.1 flights remain in flux, pending the outcome of the investigation into the CRS-7 failure.
Further Russian operations will continue with the arrival of Progress M-29M in September and the departure of Progress M-28M and arrival of the new-specification “Progress-MS” in November, whilst Orbital Sciences Corp.—NASA’s second Commercial Resupply Services partner—is expected to deliver its fourth dedicated Cygnus cargo mission aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401, no sooner than 3 December. The latter will represent the first Cygnus flight since the catastrophic loss of ORB-3 in October 2014, when its Antares booster exploded, seconds after liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va.
For the first time in almost two years, a “direct handover” of ISS crew members is expected to occur in the first half of September, with no fewer than three piloted Soyuz TMA spacecraft briefly in residence at the orbital outpost. In late-August, Padalka, Kornienko, and Kelly will board their Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft and perform a short, 25-minute “hop” from the zenith-facing Poisk module to the aft port of the Zvezda service module, thus making room for the arrival of Soyuz TMA-18M on 1 September. Under normal circumstances, six-member ISS crews follow an “indirect handover,” whereby a given three-member subset departs, temporarily reducing the station’s population to three, after which a new crew arrives to restore it to six.
However, with Kornienko and Kelly embarking on a year-long mission, and with Padalka due to return to Earth after six months, a replacement Commander is required to join them for the second half of their long voyage. As such, veteran cosmonaut 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 Kazakhstan’s Aidyn Aimbetov. The latter was added to the roster in recent weeks, following the withdrawal from training of English soprano and Spaceflight Participant (SFP) Sarah Brightman. With the arrival of Soyuz TMA-18M and Volkov, Mogensen, and Aimbetov, the ISS will host no less than nine crew members, simultaneously.
ISS Program managers prefer to utilize the lateral Poisk and Rassvet modules for Soyuz dockings, in order that the Zvezda aft port—which runs along the station’s longitudinal axis—can be employed by Progress resupply craft for orbital reboost maneuvers. Since Soyuz TMA-16M is due to depart on 12 September, a brief presence of a piloted craft at Zvezda aft is not expected to pose any visiting vehicle traffic complications. Soyuz TMA-16M will return to Earth with Padalka, Mogensen, and Aimbetov, with on-orbit leadership handed over to Scott Kelly, who will command Expedition 45 through December 2015 and Expedition 46 until March 2016. This means that Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui will become the first three-member Soyuz expedition crew in ISS history to remain Flight Engineers throughout their mission; all other crews have included at least one astronaut or cosmonaut who has rotated into the command of the following expedition.
October 2015 promises to be a significant month in U.S. space endurance records, as Kelly officially becomes the most experienced NASA astronaut on the 14th, when he surpasses 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. At some point in the month, Kelly and Lindgren are expected to perform two EVAs, which will come hard on the heels of the robotic relocation of PMA-3 from its present position on the Tranquility node to its Commercial Crew location at the zenith port of Harmony. At a Soyuz TMA-17M press conference at JSC in March—when Soyuz TMA-17M was still scheduled to fly in the May-November timeframe—AmericaSpace’s Michael Galindo asked the crew about these EVAs and was told by Lindgren that “hopefully those will stay within our increment.” With the delayed launch of Soyuz TMA-17M, Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui’s return to Earth has been similarly extended to 22 December, producing an overall mission duration of approximately 153 days.
Remarkably, for the second time in three months, it appears that a direct rotation will also occur late in the year, with Soyuz TMA-19M targeted to launch from Baikonur on 15 December, ferrying Yuri Malenchenko, Tim Kopra, and Tim Peake to the ISS, thereby expanding the Expedition 45 crew temporarily to nine members. In support of this direct rotation, the soon-to-depart Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui will undock Soyuz TMA-17M from Rassvet and perform a 25-minute hop to the Zvezda aft port. This will open up the Rassvet interface for the arrival of Soyuz TMA-19M and its crew.
The second part of this Soyuz TMA-17M preview article will appear tomorrow, focusing on the crew.
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