Piercing the pre-dawn skies of Baikonur Cosmodrome, on the desolate steppe of Kazakhstan, a veteran Soyuz-FG booster roared into space tonight, carrying a new crew for the International Space Station (ISS). Aboard Soyuz TMA-20M—the final member of this latest variant of Russian piloted space vehicles, whose four-generational heritage dates back to the mid-1960s—were cosmonauts Alexei Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka, together with NASA’s Jeff Williams, who will form the second half of Expedition 47 until early June and rotate into the core of Expedition 48 until early September. Liftoff of Soyuz TMA-20M took place from Baikonur’s hallowed Site 1/5 (also known as “Gagarin’s Start”) at 3:26:42 a.m. local time Saturday, 19 March (5:26:42 p.m. EDT Friday, 18 March), kicking off a six-hour and four-orbit “chase” of the orbiting space station.
As detailed in AmericaSpace’s preview article, the prime crew and their backups—Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Andrei Borisenko and NASA’s Shane Kimbrough—flew from the Star City training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, to Baikonur, in early March. They spent the next two weeks wrapping up their training and performing fit-checks of their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits and of Soyuz TMA-20M itself, as well as participating in the ceremonial activities of raising national flags and planting trees in the famed Avenue of the Cosmonauts. On Wednesday, the launch vehicle was rolled horizontally out to Site 1/5 and, despite a slight delay, due to high winds, was elevated to the vertical. Yesterday (Thursday), the State Commission convened and granted its unanimous approval to proceed with an on-time launch.
For Williams, who becomes the oldest NASA astronaut ever to voyage to the ISS, this is his fourth spaceflight. “I have been on-orbit with 45 different people,” he tweeted Thursday to his 25,800 followers. Included in that figure are the six shuttle crew members from his first mission, STS-101 in May 2000, plus the Russian, Brazilian, U.S., German, Belgian, Canadian, and Japanese men and women who flew with him throughout the remainder of his career. By the time Williams returns to Earth in September, he will have added a further six astronauts and cosmonauts—NASA astronauts Tim Kopra and Kate Rubins, Russia’s Yuri Malenchenko and Anatoli Ivanishin, and Japan’s Takuya Onishi and Britain’s Tim Peake—to his personal list of extraterrestrial “meet-ups.”
Selected as an astronaut candidate in May 1996, he was the first of his 44-strong group—nicknamed “Sardines,” due to their numbers—to perform a spacewalk and presents stands as the sixth most experienced U.S. spacefarer, with almost 362 days across his three previous missions. When he boards the station later tonight, Williams will become the first American to participate in as many as three discrete ISS expeditions. Next Friday (25 March) he will pass fellow astronaut Don Pettit to enter fifth place on the U.S. list, and by month’s end will have pipped British-born Mike Foale to reach fourth place. By mid-April, Williams will also have surpassed both Peggy Whitson and Mike Fincke to enter second place, behind recently-returned Scott Kelly. And as the current manifest stands, he will exceed Kelly’s cumulative 520-day career total on 23/24 August, before returning to Earth as the new U.S. national record-holder on 7 September, with around 534 days of time in space.
As he spent his last day on terra firma, Williams shared a Vlog update, in which he expressed his thanks to his supporters and looked forward to seeing Kopra, Malenchenko, and Peake. “Launch day!” he exulted. “In the air is a bit of snow and a huge amount of enthusiasm. All I plan to pack is a nice-looking suit.”
At 6:25 p.m. local time (8:25 a.m. EDT) Friday, the prime and backup crews were awakened and proceeded to shower and submitted to disinfection, after which microbial samples were taken in support of scientific and biomedical experiments. They received a traditional blessing from a Russian Orthodox priest, signed the doors of their bedrooms, and departed Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel to the strains of “Grass by the Home,” a 1983 hit by the Soviet-era band, Zemlyane (“Earthlings”). They were bussed over to Site 254, where they donned their Sokol suits and bade poignant farewells—albeit from behind glass screens—to their families and friends. At 12:25 a.m. local time (2:25 p.m. EDT), the bus departed Site 254, beginning a 25-minute journey to the launch pad.
Having reached Site 1/5, the trio were placed into their specially contoured seats aboard the Soyuz TMA-20M descent module. In the center seat was Ovchinin, who commanded today’s flight, with Skripochka to his left as “Flight Engineer-1” and Williams to his right as “Flight Engineer-2.” About two hours before T-0, the spacecraft hatch was closed. “It’s a pretty tight squeeze in that space capsule,” tweeted NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock, who rode a Soyuz to and from the ISS in 2010. “Most of the pain is in your knees and feet.” Honoring the forthcoming 55th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight into space was a bright blue decal on the side of the Soyuz-FG booster. Earlier in the day, Ovchinin had drawn attention not only to this significant event, but also to the fact that his crew would launch on the 51st anniversary of Alexei Leonov’s historic first spacewalk.
Their Soyuz-FG was a direct descendent of Chief Designer Sergei Korolev’s R-7 booster, the world’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), and was loaded with liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1.” The oxygen was continuously topped-off until close to T-0, in order to ensure that boiled-off cryogens were replenished and the tanks kept at “Flight Ready” levels. Shortly before 3 a.m. local time Saturday (5 a.m. EDT Friday), the service structure was retracted from the booster.
“Godspeed and safe travels @Astro_Jeff, Oleg and Alexei,” tweeted Tim Peake in the minutes before tonight’s launch. “Looking forward to welcoming you on-board #ISS in a few hours!” In the final 15 minutes, the Launch Abort System (LAS) was armed and transferred to automatic mode and the three men closed their helmet visors. At T-5 minutes, Ovchinin’s controls and displays were activated and internal avionics were spooled-up to monitor the Soyuz-FG’s myriad systems throughout ascent.
Inside the control bunker, the “launch key”—an actual physical key—was inserted at 3:21 a.m. local time Saturday (5:21 p.m. EDT Friday) to enable the rocket’s ordnance, after which propellant tanks were pressurized and the Soyuz-FG transitioned to internal power. Three minutes before launch, the ISS itself passed about 251 statute miles (404 km) above Kazakhstan. At T-10 seconds, the turbopumps of the RD-108 first-stage engine and the RD-107 engines of the four tapering, strap-on boosters attained full speed. Five seconds later, the engines themselves ignited, quickly ramping up to full power, before Site 1/5’s fueling tower retracted and Soyuz TMA-20M lifted off at 3:26:42 a.m. local time Saturday, 19 March (5:26:42 p.m. EDT Friday, 18 March).
The four tapering boosters were jettisoned about two minutes into the flight, by which time the vehicle was traveling in excess of 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h). Images from inside the cabin showed Williams and a bright pink toy owl, belonging to Ovchinin’s daughter, which was being carried as a good-luck charm—a reminder of home and family—and as an early indicator of the onset of weightlessness. With the departure of the boosters, the Soyuz-FG continued onward under the thrust of the single RD-108 engine. At 3:31 a.m. local time Saturday (5:31 p.m. EDT Friday), the first stage was jettisoned at an altitude of 105.6 statute miles (170 km) and the third stage roared to life, pushing the crew to 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h). By the time the third stage separated at nine minutes, they had already attained a preliminary orbit of 125 x 160 miles (200 x 260 km), inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator. Embarking on his first mission, Ovchinin became the 544th human to enter space.
“The Soyuz zero-G indicator,” tweeted veteran astronaut Rick Mastracchio, who rode one of these boosters to orbit back in November 2013. “When it’s floating, you are weightless.” And seeing the little owl transition from bouncing up and down, its startled green-browed eyes seeming to enjoy the journey as much as its human crewmates, to suddenly jerking out of frame when the third stage separated, then reappearing as a weightless object offered a remarkable sight.
Shortly after achieving orbit, Soyuz TMA-20M began the process of deploying its electricity-generating solar arrays, together with its communications and navigation appendages. This paved the way for an intricate series of four “burns” to raise the spacecraft’s apogee to reach the operational altitude of the ISS, leading to a docking at the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module at about 11:12 p.m. EDT Friday. After a series of pressure and leak checks, hatches into the station will be opened at 12:55 a.m. EDT Saturday, 19 March, and the new arrivals will be welcomed by the incumbent Expedition 47 trio of Commander Tim Kopra and his crewmates Yuri Malenchenko and Tim Peake, who have been aboard the ISS since mid-December.
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