Britain’s first “official” astronaut—sponsored by the UK Government, although flying as a representative of the European Space Agency (ESA)—launched alongside Russian and U.S. crewmates earlier today (Tuesday, 15 December) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Tim Peake rocketed toward the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Soyuz TMA-19M, shoulder-to-shoulder with veteran cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and NASA’s Tim Kopra. Following their successful, on-time launch from Baikonur’s Site 1/5 at 5:03 p.m. local time (6:03 a.m. EST), the trio of spacefarers pursued a now-standard six-hour and four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile, ahead of a smooth docking at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the station’s Rassvet module, planned at 12:24 p.m. EST.
After a series of pressure and leak checks, the hatches were due to be opened and they would be welcomed by Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly and his Russian crewmates, Mikhail Kornienko and Sergei Volkov. The arrival of Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake heralds the final phase of the joint U.S./Russian One-Year Mission and kicks off an ambitious six months in orbit for the newcomers, which is expected to feature as many as six Visiting Vehicles (VVs) and perhaps four EVAs, the first in mid-January.
As outlined in AmericaSpace’s Soyuz TMA-19M preview, preparations for the launch culminated with the arrival of Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake and their backups—Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Ivanishin, U.S. astronaut Kate Rubins, and Japan’s Takuya Onishi—at Baikonur on 30 November, ahead of the final days of training. On Sunday, the Soyuz-FG booster, bearing the spacecraft, was transported in a horizontal configuration from the assembly building to the launch pad at Site 1/5. Also known as “Gagarin’s Start,” this pad is the same area from which Yuri Gagarin commenced his pioneering voyage, way back in April 1961. “Our crew is ready!” Kopra tweeted after Sunday’s rollout, a sentiment echoed by Peake, who described the mammoth Soyuz-FG as “a good-looking rocket.”
Early Tuesday, the prime and backup crews were awakened about 8.5 hours before the scheduled T-0. They showered and were disinfected, after which microbial samples were taken in support of scientific and biomedical investigations. Breakfast was followed by departure from Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel and the traditional blessing by a Russian Orthodox priest. Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake were bussed to Site 254, where they underwent final medical checks and donned their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits. This also offered them a final opportunity to speak, face-to-face, with their families, albeit from behind glass screens. They then departed Site 254 for the launch pad.
At Site 1/5, the three men were ensconced into their specially contoured seats aboard the Soyuz TMA-19M descent module about two hours prior to liftoff. Malenchenko occupied the center couch, commanding the flight, with Kopra to his left side as “Flight Engineer-1” and Peake to his right as “Flight Engineer-2.” Their Soyuz-FG booster—a direct descendent of Chief Designer Sergei Korolev’s R-7 booster, the world’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM)—underwent final checks and was 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 shortly before T-0, thus ensuring that all tanks remained at “Flight Ready” levels, prior to the ignition of the RD-108 first-stage engine and the RD-107 engines of the four tapering, strap-on boosters.
It has become traditional for Soyuz crews to listen to their own choice of music, piped into the spacecraft’s cabin, in the final minutes before liftoff. Last week, Peake tweeted that “I get to pick 3 songs to listen to in the Soyuz just before launch” and rhetorically asked “What would you choose whilst sat on top of 300 tons of rocket fuel?” After receiving many suggestions from among his 61,600 followers, he reached his final decision: in addition to the musical choices of Malenchenko and Kopra, the first official British astronaut savored Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” U2’s “Beautiful Day,” and Coldplay’s “A Sky Full of Stars” during his final minutes on terra firma. “Gonna need to be real loud,” Peake added, somewhat understatedly.
In the last 15 minutes of the countdown, the Launch Abort System (LAS) was armed and transferred to Automatic Mode and the crew closed their helmet visors. At T-5 minutes, Malenchenko’s controls were activated. Internal avionics were initiated and the on-board flight recorders were spooled-up to monitor the systems of the booster during its ascent to orbit. Inside the control bunker, the “launch key”—an actual, physical key—was inserted in order to enable the rocket’s ordnance. This was followed by gaseous nitrogen purging, pressurization of the propellant tanks and final cryogenic topping. At T-60 seconds 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 boosters roared to life and quickly reached maximum power. This produced a retraction of Site 1/5’s fueling tower and a liftoff into the steadily darkening Baikonur sky at 5:03 p.m. local time (6:03 a.m. EST).
Rising rapidly, the vehicle exceeded 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h) within a minute of liftoff, and at T+118 seconds the four tapering boosters were jettisoned, leaving the core alone to continue the boost into low-Earth orbit. By the two-minute mark, Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake had surpassed 3,350 mph (5,390 km/h), and, shortly afterwards, the escape tower and launch shroud separated, exposing Soyuz TMA-19M to the near-vacuum of the rarefied high atmosphere for the first time. Five minutes after departing the desolate steppe of Central Asia in a blaze of fire and light, the core booster separated at an altitude of 105.6 statute miles (170 km) and the third and final stage of the Soyuz-FG ignited, accelerating the ISS-bound trio to a velocity of more than 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h). By the time of third-stage separation, at nine minutes into the flight, the crew was in an orbit of about 125 x 160 miles (200 x 260 km), inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator.
Another tradition is the presence of a “zero-gravity indicator” in the cabin to alert the crew about the onset of weightlessness. Previous astronauts and cosmonauts have carried toys from their children, including a giraffe by Soyuz TMA-13M’s Reid Wiseman and the “Frozen” character Olaf by Soyuz TMA-15M’s Anton Shkaplerov. For today’s launch, the crew carried a gold medallion, bearing the image of Yuri Gagarin, which Malenchenko recently explained was being carried in honor of 2016’s 55th anniversary of the historic Vostok 1 voyage. “The flight of the first Earthling opened the era of manned spaceflight,” explained Malenchenko recently, “and I am very proud that, together with my colleagues, I have the most direct bearing on the continuation and development of the Space Age.”
After entering orbit, the process of deploying Soyuz TMA-19M’s solar arrays and communications and navigational appendages got underway, preparatory to a series of four maneuvering “burns” to raise the apogee of their orbit to reach the operational altitude of the ISS. The first burn (designated “DV-1”) occurred 45 minutes into the mission, after which a second burn (DV-2) was conducted 90 minutes after liftoff. These will be followed by another pair of burns, later in the rendezvous sequence, which should position the spacecraft for an on-time docking at the station’s Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module at 12:24 p.m. EST, about six hours and 21 minutes into the flight.
This will be followed by standard pressure and leak checks and hatches are expected to be opened into the station by 2 p.m. EST, when the new arrivals will be welcomed aboard their new orbital home by the incumbent Expedition 46 crew of Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko, and Sergei Volkov. As will be described in an AmericaSpace article tomorrow (Wednesday), it will mark the onset of an ambitious six months in orbit for Soyuz TMA-19M, which will see up to six Visiting Vehicles (VVs), as many as four U.S. and Russian EVAs, and is expected to see Malenchenko rise to become one of the top three most experienced spacefarers of all time.