Soyuz TMA-17M lit up the night sky at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan earlier this evening, delivering Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, U.S. astronaut Kjell Lindgren, and Japan’s Kimiya Yui safely into orbit to begin a six-hour “fast rendezvous” profile to reach the International Space Station (ISS). Liftoff of the crew’s mammoth Soyuz-FG booster—a direct descendent of the R-7 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), conceived by the legendary Chief Designer, Sergei Korolev, in the 1950s—occurred on time from Baikonur’s historic Site 1/5 at 3:02 a.m. local time Thursday, 23 July (5:02 p.m. EDT Wednesday, 22 July). Shortly after achieving orbit, the Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft successfully unfurled its electricity-generating solar arrays and communications appendages and executed a series of four maneuvers to accomplish a perfect docking at the station’s Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module at about 8:45 a.m. Baikonur time Thursday (10:45 p.m. EDT Wednesday). After pressure and leak checks, the hatches were opened at 10:56 a.m. Baikonur time (12:56 a.m. EDT) Thursday, and Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui were engulfed in bear-hugs from the incumbent Expedition 44 crew of record-setting Commander Gennadi Padalka and One-Year crewmen Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly, who have been aboard the ISS since March.
As described in AmericaSpace’s two-part Soyuz TMA-17M preview article—available here and here—the mission of Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui has been delayed almost two months past its original 26/27 May launch target, chiefly due to the April failure of Russia’s Progress M-27M cargo craft and subsequent booster inspections. As a result, their scheduled return to Earth has correspondingly moved back from 5 November to 22 December, producing a total expedition duration of about 153 days. They will initially form the second half of Expedition 44, before Soyuz TMA-18M arrives in early September, bringing Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, Kazakhstan’s Aidyn Aimbetov, and Denmark’s first man in space, Andreas Mogensen. On 11/12 September, Padalka will return to Earth aboard Soyuz TMA-16M, alongside Aimbetov and Mogensen, handing over command of the ISS to Scott Kelly and officially kicking off Expedition 45, which will continue through the return of Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui to Earth on 22 December.
During their time in orbit, the three new arrivals can expect to see the arrival of Japan’s fifth H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-5) “Kounotori” (“White Stork”) cargo spacecraft in the second half of August, marking only the second occasion that a Japanese crewman will have been aboard the ISS to welcome the rendezvous, capture and berthing of one of his country’s national ships. They will also bid farewell to Russia’s Progress M-26M cargo vehicle in mid-August, welcome Progress M-29M in late September and the first flight of the new “Progress-MS” at the tail end of November. As far as NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) visitors are concerned, SpaceX’s launch schedule remains in flux, pending the outcome of an ongoing investigation into June’s CRS-7 failure, whilst Orbital Sciences Corp.—which catastrophically lost its most recent Cygnus cargo ship (ORB-3), last October—is targeting early December for the resumption of flight operations with the ORB-4 mission, lofted atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster.
Present plans call for Kelly and Lindgren to perform two EVAs in the November timeframe, following the robotic transfer of the Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-3 from its current position on the Tranquility node to its final position on the space-facing (or “zenith”) face of the Harmony node. This will allow it to provide a backup docking interface for Commercial Crew vehicles—Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon V-2—from 2017 onward. Both PMA-3 and PMA-2, the latter of which is affixed to the forward port of Harmony, will receive International Docking Adapters (IDAs), which are compatible with the Commercial Crew vehicles. The PMA-2 interface will be the primary docking port, whilst PMA-3 will provide a backup. Unfortunately, the loss of IDA-1 aboard the CRS-7 mission means that IDA-2 will fly aboard SpaceX’s CRS-9 Dragon and will now fulfil the IDA-1 role at PMA-2, whilst a new docking adapter (IDA-3) will be assembled over the coming months from spare parts and launched at a later date for installation onto PMA-3.
For the first time in almost two years, the increment of Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui will include a “direct rotation” of crew members … on not one, but two occasions. Under normal circumstances, six-person ISS crews follow an “indirect rotation,” whereby a given three-member subset departs the station, reducing the population to three, after which a fresh team are launched to restore the station back to full operational strength. The first direct rotation will come in September and is necessary because Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly are embarking on a year-long mission, whilst Gennadi Padalka is due to return to Earth after six months, thus requiring another cosmonaut to join them for the second half of their long voyage. The second direct rotation currently anticipates the launch of Soyuz TMA-19M—crewed by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, U.S. astronaut Tim Kopra, and Britain’s Tim Peake—on 15 December, which will occur a week before the scheduled 22 December return to Earth of Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui. According to NASA’s Rob Navias, this second direct rotation of the year is designed to maximize the Soyuz TMA-17M crew’s time in orbit, following their two-month delay.
Launch Day was a busy one for Kononenko, Lindgren, and Yui, who were awakened in their quarters at the Baikonur Cosmodrome about 8.5 hours before launch. They showered, were disinfected, and subjected themselves to microbial samples in support of the scientific and biomedical investigations to be undertaken aboard the ISS. After breakfast, they received a traditional blessing from a Russian Orthodox priest and departed Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel, bound for Site 254, where they donned their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits. This offered them a last opportunity to speak, face-to-face, with their families and friends, albeit from behind glass screens. At length, they departed Site 254 for the pad.
At Site 1/5, they were ensconced into their specially contoured Kazbek shock-absorbing seats, with Kononenko in the central Commander’s position, flanked by Yui to his left as “Flight Engineer-1” and Lindgren to his right as “Flight Engineer-2.” Shortly after 2 a.m. local time Thursday (4 p.m. EDT Wednesday), all three men were safely in their seats and the process to close Soyuz TMA-17M’s hatch was completed.
During this period, their Soyuz-FG launch vehicle underwent final checks and was fully fueled with a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1,” together with liquid oxygen. The latter entered a “topping” mode after loading and all cryogenic boil-off was continuously replenished until just before T-0. This ensured that all tanks remained 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. The service tower was retracted shortly before 2:30 a.m. local time Thursday (4:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday), and the launch pad was evacuated of all personnel a few minutes thereafter.
In the final 15 minutes, the Launch Abort System (LAS) was armed and transferred to Automatic Mode and the crew was instructed to close their visors. At this point, Kononenko’s controls were activated. Internal avionics were initiated and the on-board flight recorders were 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—was inserted to enable the rocket’s ordnance. This was followed by nitrogen purging, pressurization of the propellant tanks and final cryogenic topping. A minute before T-0, the Soyuz-FG transitioned to Internal Power, and, at T-10 seconds, the engine turbopumps attained full speed. Five seconds later, the engines of the core and tapering boosters roared to life and quickly reached full power. This produced 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 exceeded 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h), within a minute of clearing the tower, and at T+118 seconds the four tapering boosters were jettisoned, leaving the core stage alone to continue the boost into low-Earth orbit. By the two-minute mark, Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui surpassed 3,350 mph (5,390 km/h), and, shortly thereafter, the escape tower and launch shroud separated, 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 separated 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 separated, nine minutes into the flight, the crew entered an orbit of about 125 x 160 miles (200 x 260 km), inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator, and began the process of deploying their craft’s communications and navigation antennas and solar arrays. In televised views from inside the cabin, the three men could be seen clasping their gloved hands in triumph as they achieved orbit. For Lindgren and Yui, this is their first mission, whilst Kononenko is now a veteran of three orbital voyages.
Despite initial speculation that only one solar array had deployed—generating unpleasant reminders of the Soyuz TMA-12M crew’s experience in March 2014—it was subsequently confirmed that the other array successfully unfurled during final approach to the space station. Expedition 44’s Scott Kelly tweeted: “New #ISSCrew arrival. The other array snuck out between my taking this photo and docking.”
Like several of its predecessors, Soyuz TMA-17M undertook 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, in fact, 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.
A complex symphony of four maneuvering “burns” were executed in order to raise the apogee of Soyuz TMA-17M’s orbit to reach the operational altitude of the ISS and position the spacecraft for its docking at the Rassvet port at about 8:45 a.m. Baikonur time Thursday (10:45 p.m. EDT Wednesday), some five hours and 43 minutes into the flight. Following standard pressure and leak checks, the hatches were opened at 10:56 a.m. Baikonur time (12:56 a.m. EDT) Thursday and Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui were greeted by the incumbent Expedition 44 crew of Padalka, Kornienko, and Kelly.
In the minutes after today’s successful launch, the congratulations—and commiserations—flooded in, via Twitter. “3 astronauts just launched to @Space_Station,” quipped Kelly’s twin brother, former shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly. “They’ll spend 5 months w/my brother @StationCDRKelly. Those poor guys!” Other veteran spacefarers also chimed in with their comments. “Beautiful launch!” tweeted former ISS resident Rick Mastracchio. “Enjoy your ride @astro_kjell.” Recently returned Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti described the launch as “the start of a great adventure”, whilst “rookie” spacefarer Anne McClain—who has recently completed her initial training as a member of NASA’s 2013 class of astronaut candidates—asked Kelly if he had claimed “the biggest room before they get there?”
For Kelly himself, it appears that he is looking forward to a spot of company aboard the station’s U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS), having handled most of its systems and operations alone since the return of the Soyuz TMA-15M crew to Earth on 11 June. Earlier today, he posted a humorous photograph of himself with a tiny soccer ball. “After 2 months alone,” Kelly tweeted, “me and my little friend Wilson will soon have company on the U.S. segment of @Space_Station,” paying tribute to the volleyball “befriended” by actor Tom Hanks’ character Chuck Noland in the 2000 movie, Cast Away. Later, following the Soyuz TMA-17M launch, he added “Look forward to seeing the newbies’ faces when they see this,” posting a stunning view of the Home Planet, then closing with “Good night from @space_station! #YearInSpace.”
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