Almost 186 days since they rose from Earth—aboard the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan—the outgoing Expedition 47 crew of the International Space Station (ISS) returned safely to terra firma today (Saturday, 18 June). Aboard the bell-shaped Soyuz descent module were veteran Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, NASA’s Tim Kopra, and Britain’s first “official” astronaut, Tim Peake. Long before touchdown, Malenchenko had established himself comfortably in second place on the list of the most flight-experienced spacefarers of all time, whilst Kopra became America’s ninth most seasoned astronaut and, by default, Peake has flown for longer in space than any other single-nationality British citizen. Between them, the trio have totaled over 3.4 cumulative years of their lives away from the Home Planet.
They completed the final major task of their longer-than-intended stay aboard the ISS earlier this week, with the successful unberthing and departure of Orbital ATK’s OA-6 Cygnus cargo ship. Named in honor of STS-107 Commander Rick Husband, the Cygnus closed out a highly successful 80-day berthed period at the space station, the longest of any commercial Visiting Vehicle (VV) to date. Launched on 23 March, the OA-6 spacecraft was grappled by means of the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 a few days later and attached to the station’s Unity node. It was joined shortly thereafter by SpaceX’s CRS-8 Dragon—laden with the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM)—to mark the first occasion that as many as two commercial VVs were in simultaneous residence at the ISS. Added to this tally were the first two Progress-MS cargo ships, launched in December 2015 and March 2016, bringing the total number of VVs to arrive at the station during the increment of Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake to five.
Launched last 15/16 December, aboard the second-to-last Soyuz TMA-M spacecraft—which is due to be replaced in July when the upgraded Soyuz-MS begins its maiden voyage—the trio arrived at the station to begin the final stage of the One-Year Mission of U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly and Russia’s Mikhail Kornienko. Under Kelly’s command, Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake joined Kornienko and fellow Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov as the 46th ISS crew. Within days of their arrival, however, Kelly and Kopra were called upon to perform an Unplanned EVA to secure the stalled Mobile Transporter (MT) at a new worksite on the Integrated Truss Structure (ITS). This was followed by a second EVA in mid-January 2015, which saw Kopra and Peake replace a failed Sequential Shunt Unit (SSU) and tend to a variety of other tasks, including a handful pertaining to NASA’s future Commercial Crew ambitions. Peake became the first British national (flying with a Union Jack on the sleeve of his space suit) to perform an EVA.
In late February, having bidden farewell to Orbital ATK’s OA-4 Cygnus cargo ship, the time arrived for Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake to also bid goodbye to Kelly, Kornienko, and Volkov. The latter trio returned to Earth on 1/2 March, with Kelly and Kornienko closing out a 340-day mission—the longest ever accomplished in the ISS era and the fourth-longest piloted spaceflight in human history—and Volkov completing 182 days in orbit. Before departing, Kelly relinquished command of the space station to Kopra, thereby transitioning from Expedition 46 to Expedition 47. Two weeks after the return of Kelly’s men, Expedition 47 was restored from its reduced three-man capability to full six-man strength with the launch and arrival of Soyuz TMA-20M and its crew of Russian cosmonauts Alexei Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka and NASA astronaut Jeff Williams.
Expedition 47 has, of course, been characterized by a number of highly visible events, including last month’s successful deployment of the expandable BEAM module, but has also contributed to more than 250 ongoing research investigations. These have focused upon the effects of weightless exposure on the musculoskeletal system, the ability of tablets to dissolve in microgravity, and how robotics can make exercise equipment smaller to minimize volume. “Investigations like these,” NASA explained, “demonstrate how space station crews help advance NASA’s journey to Mars, while making discoveries that can benefit all of humanity.” For Tim Peake—who became the second British national, after Helen Sharman, to enter space, but the first “official” British astronaut, sponsored by the UK Government—the mission has granted the opportunity to represent his home nation in orbit. He has observed the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, ran the 26-mile (42-km) London Marathon on the station’s treadmill, and celebrated St. George’s Day from orbit. He has also delighted a worldwide audience with #SpaceRocks—his selection of 75 favorite music tracks, whose opening lyrics have appeared regularly on his Twitter account—and closed out the final instalment last week with Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know.
“Time to put on some weight!” Peake tweeted in his last offering from orbit, late on Friday, 17 June. “What an incredible journey it has been– thank you for following & see you back on Earth!” Less than a day later, he would also become the first of the returned Expedition 47 crew to deliver a post-landing tweet, in which he expressed thanks to his former UK primary school, whose current pupils had put together a chorus of “Welcome Home.”
As their long mission entered its homestretch, Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake leak-checked their Russian-made Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits on 9 June and ran through pre-undocking activities aboard their Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft. At 9:20 a.m. EDT yesterday (Friday, 17 June), Kopra ceremoniously handed command of the space station over to Jeff Williams, who—alongside Ovchinin and Skripochka—has been aboard for 13 weeks. In doing so, Williams becomes the second U.S. astronaut to chalk up two ISS commands, as well as the first American to fly as many as three separate long-duration missions.
In the formal change-of-command ceremony, Kopra paid tribute to “an incredible international team,” which had supported his crew throughout their long mission. “We’ve been so privileged to work here on board with a huge variety of science experiments that we know are going to be a stepping-stone for human exploration,” he said. “And we’ve demonstrated, both from the ground and from the crew on-board … that we’ve got a world-class, international laboratory.”
Touchingly, he added that it had been an honor to work with his five Expedition 47 crewmates, before drawing attention to the ship’s bell first rung by Expedition 1 Commander Bill Shepherd—a U.S. Navy officer—as a nod to the naval tradition of “changing of the watch.” With the merest hint of humor, he noted that both himself and Williams were, in fact, ex-U.S. Army officers. After ringing the bell, Kopra formally transferred command to Williams and passed over the microphone. “I’ve always said that a Number One personal objective that all of us should have,” he said, “is to complete a stay on-board the International Space Station, look back and say That’s one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.”
He wished Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake a safe return to Earth and to their families. Picking up on the Russian wish for “Soft landings,” Williams joked that—for those of the crew who had previously done a Soyuz landing—“There’s nothing soft about it!” Then, digging into his pocket, Williams produced a list of numbers and highlighted the respective amount of time spent in orbit by each of his outgoing crewmates. Chief among them, of course, was Malenchenko, whose career encompasses a flight on Russia’s Mir space station, a shuttle flight, and four long-duration expeditions to the ISS between April 2003 and today. Finally, Williams awarded Kopra with the Army Aviation Association of America’s (AAAA) Order of St. Michael Gold Award, making sure to add a tab of duct tape to prevent the metal medal from floating around. According to the AAAA, Kopra received the Bronze Award in 1998 and the Silver Award in 2009. He joins Williams—himself a retired Army colonel—who was awarded Bronze in 2000, Silver in 2006 and Gold in 2010.
Williams is the 23rd U.S. skipper of the ISS. Across the 48 expeditions carried out since November 2000, Russian cosmonauts have led 22 increments and the International Partners (IPs) of the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) boast one command apiece. Russia’s Gennadi Padalka has commanded the ISS a record-breaking four times, with fellow cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin in second place on three commands and Pavel Vinogradov, Oleg Kotov, Scott Kelly, and now Williams having all led two increments.
Williams will lead the station through September and his own crew is expected to be restored to six-strong capability in early July, with the arrival of Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Ivanishin, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, and Japan’s Takuya Onishi aboard the first Soyuz-MS vehicle. In late August, Williams will surpass Scott Kelly’s 520-day accomplishment for the greatest cumulative period ever spent in space by a U.S. citizen. By the time he returns to Earth on 7 September, Williams will have accrued around 534 days in orbit, across his four-mission career.
As they prepared for departure, Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake had established an impressive raft of accomplishments. Entering their 186th day in space, theirs is now the 17th longest ISS increment in history. By default, Peake has now secured the record for the longest single mission by a UK astronaut; British-born Mike Foale has flown a longer expedition, but did so with dual citizenship and wore the Stars and Stripes on the sleeve of his space suit. Kopra—whose career total now tops 244 days, counting a two-month stint aboard Expedition 20 in the summer of 2009—becomes the ninth most experienced U.S. astronaut, whilst Malenchenko now stands in second place on the list of the most flight-seasoned spacefarers of all time. With 828 days of cumulative time away from the Home Planet, Malenchenko has exceeded five fellow Russian cosmonauts during his current expedition and is presently surpassed only by the 878-day total of Gennadi Padalka.
After bidding farewell to Williams, Ovchinin, and Skripochka, the outgoing crew entered Soyuz TMA-19M and the hatches between their vehicle and the station’s Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module were closed. The spacecraft parted company at 1:52 a.m. EDT Saturday and Malenchenko oversaw a series of separation maneuvers, ahead of the jettisoning of Soyuz TMA-19M’s spherical orbital module and cylindrical instrument module. Passing through the worst of re-entry heating, the twin pilot parachutes were deployed at an altitude of 6.6 miles (10.7 km), followed by the 258-square-foot (24-square-meter) drogue and, lastly, the 10,764-square-foot (1,000-square-meter) main canopy. Together with six solid-fueled rockets in the descent module’s base, these provided for a soft landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan at 5:15 a.m. EDT (3:15 p.m. local time). At the instant of touchdown, they had accrued 185 days, 22 hours, and 11 minutes away from Earth and had circled the Home Planet 2,893 times.
Within hours, the three men parted and went their separate ways, with Malenchenko headed for the Star City cosmonauts’ training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, and Kopra bound eventually for Ellington Field, near the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. For Peake, he became the third ESA astronaut to fly directly to the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany, for immediate post-flight medical checks.
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