Three new residents for the International Space Station (ISS) are en-route to the orbital outpost tonight, following the rousing liftoff of Soyuz MS-01 from Site 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Veteran Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Ivanishin and his “rookie” crewmates Kate Rubins of NASA and Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) thundered into the warm, sunny Baikonur sky at 7:36 a.m. local time Thursday, 7 July (9:36 p.m. EDT Wednesday, 6 July). Their trek to the ISS—and their union with the incumbent Expedition 48 crew—will last somewhat longer than most Soyuz crews, for Ivanishin, Onishi, and Rubins are following a “standard” two-day rendezvous profile. This profile has been adopted to extensively test the systems on the first orbital voyage of the new Soyuz-MS transport spacecraft, and the crew are due to dock at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the station’s Rassvet module around midnight Friday/Saturday.
As detailed in AmericaSpace’s preview article, the prime crew and their backups—Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky, France’s Thomas Pesquet, and former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson—flew from the Star City training complex, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, to desolate Baikonur on 24 June. Over the next two weeks, they closed out the remainder of their training, performing fit-checks of their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits and of Soyuz MS-01 itself. This spacecraft represents the fourth generation of Soviet and Russian piloted vehicles, whose heritage dates back to the mid-1960s. In its latest incarnation, Soyuz-MS boasts higher-efficiency solar arrays, better propulsion system redundancy, the new “Kurs-NA” (“Course”) rendezvous hardware, a lighter flight computer, and improved telemetry, command, and autonomous navigation capabilities.
Early Monday, stacked atop a giant Soyuz-FG booster, the spacecraft was rolled horizontally from the assembly building to Site 1/5, the same location from which Yuri Gagarin launched in April 1961 on humanity’s first foray into space. It was then raised to vertical, standing 162.4 feet (49.5 meters). Emblazoned on its side was the number “70,” honoring this year’s 70th anniversary of the foundation of RSC Energia, Russia’s principal developer of human spaceflight systems. The State Commission convened and unanimously agreed to press ahead with the launch attempt. “All preparations are finally complete,” tweeted Thomas Pesquet on Wednesday. “The final state commission & press conference are behind the crew: only the rocket stands in front.”
Ivanishin, Onishi, and Rubins were awakened in their quarters at Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel at 10:35 p.m. local time (12:35 p.m. EDT) Wednesday, about 8.5 hours before T-0. They showered and were disinfected, after which microbial samples were taken in support of scientific and biomedical research aboard the ISS. Tradition has always had a significant part to play in many of the pre-launch events. The crew autographed the doors of their bedrooms, were blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest, and finaly departed the Cosmonaut Hotel for Site 254, where they donned their Sokol suits. This also gave them the opportunity to bid farewell to friends and family, albeit from behind glass screens.
With an immovable T-0, time was of the essence and the crew departed Site 254 crisply at 4:41 a.m. local time Thursday (6:41 p.m. EDT Wednesday) and reached the base of the Site 1/5 launch tower precisely 20 minutes later. Interestingly, Rubins was escorted by Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate. The crew waved to onlookers and climbed the steps to the elevator, which lifted them up to Soyuz MS-01. First, they entered the spherical orbital module, atop the spacecraft, and lowered themselves through the hatch at its base to enter their couches in the bell-shaped descent module. Ivanishin—who flew into space for 165 days between November 2011 and April 2012, as part of Expeditions 29 and 30—assumed the center seat, commanding today’s mission. Onishi took the left-side seat as “Flight Engineer-1,” and Rubins occupied the right-side seat as “Flight Engineer-2.”
The hatch was closed at 6:41 a.m. local time Thursday (8:16 p.m. EDT Wednesday), as final leak checks of the cabin got underway. Monitoring the progress of these milestones, Ivanishin utilized a tablet-based digital checklist, whilst Onishi and Rubins relied upon printed versions. By this time, loading the Soyuz-FG booster with liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene (known as “RP-1”) had concluded. However, the oxygen was continuously topped-off until close to T-0, ensuring that boiled-off cryogens were rapidly replenished and propellant tanks kept close to “Flight Ready” levels. All told, this raised the rocket’s total mass at liftoff to 672,410 pounds (305,000 kg).
As the countdown entered its final hour, the process of evacuating all non-essential personnel from Site 1/5 got underway. Only a handful of personnel remained to oversee the retraction of the launch pad’s service structure, before evacuating the site. In the meantime, Ivanishin, Onishi, and Rubins were deep into leak-checking their suits. “Crew has verified their spacesuits are leak tight,” tweeted NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman. “All proceeding perfectly.” Based in the Mission Control Center (MCC) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, Wiseman was at the Capcom’s console during today’s launch. It is customary for music to be piped into the spacecraft’s cabin, and Wiseman noted at T-54 minutes that he could hear the sounds of the Star Wars theme tune.
In the final 15 minutes, the Launch Abort System (LAS) was armed and transferred to automatic mode and Ivanishin, Onishi, and Rubins closed their helmet visors. At 7:31 a.m. local time Thursday (9:31 p.m. EDT Wednesday), with five minutes remaining in the countdown, Ivanishin’s controls and displays were activated and internal avionics were spooled-up to monitor the Soyuz-FG’s systems throughout ascent. At the same time, the “launch key”—an actual physical key—was inserted to enable the booster’s ordnance. Propellant tanks were pressurized and the vehicle transitioned to internal power.
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 of the Soyuz-FG attained full speed. Five seconds later, the engines themselves ignited and ramped up to a combined 930,000 pounds (421,840 kg) of propulsive yield. Site 1/5’s fueling tower retracted and Soyuz MS-01 lifted off at 7:36 a.m. local time Thursday, 7 July (9:36 p.m. EDT Wednesday, 6 July).
Rising rapidly, the vehicle exceeded 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h) within a minute of leaving Earth, and at T+118 seconds the four tapering boosters—each of which measures 64.3 feet (19.6 meters) in length—were jettisoned, leaving the first stage alone to continue the boost towards low-Earth orbit. Ivanishin reported that all was well on-board, as evidenced by a wry grin on Onishi’s face and a wave from Rubins. By two minutes, the crew surpassed 3,350 mph (5,390 km/h) and, shortly afterwards, the escape tower and launch shroud separated, exposing Soyuz MS-01 to the near-vacuum of the rarefied high atmosphere for the first time. The Soyuz-FG core was jettisoned five minutes into the flight, at an altitude of 105.6 miles (170 km) and the final stage ignited, accelerating the spacecraft to a velocity of more than 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h). And by the time the final stage separated at nine minutes, the crew was in an initial orbit of 125 x 160 miles (200 x 260 km), inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator.
The crew offered a thumbs-up in unison. Ivanishin was the only veteran aboard Soyuz MS-01, having spent 165 days in space between November 2011 and April 2012, during his stint on Expeditions 29 and 30. Onishi becomes Japan’s 11th spacefarer and Rubins becomes only the 10th American woman to embark on a long-duration voyage to the ISS. Her immediate predecessor, Karen Nyberg—who spent six months aboard the station in 2013—could hardly contain her excitement. “Go #AstroKate!” Nyberg exulted on Twitter. “Rocket launches never get old.”
One tradition associated with the transition from terrestrial gravity to microgravity has been the presence of a “zero-gravity indicator” in the cabin to alert the crew of the onset of weightlessness. Previous astronauts and cosmonauts have carried toys from their children—a giraffe by Soyuz TMA-13M’s Reid Wiseman, the “Frozen” character Olaf by Soyuz TMA-15M’s Anton Shkaplerov, and a bright pink and white owl by Soyuz TMA-20M’s Alexei Ovchinin—and today’s mission was no exception. Takuya Onishi’s young daughter provided a soft toy bear named “Rilakkuma.” According to his manufacturer, the Japanese stationery company San-X, Rilakkuma mysteriously appeared in the apartment of a secretary named Kaoru and decided to take up residence there. Now, Rilakkuma will take up residence in the decidedly more cramped “apartment” of Soyuz MS-01 for the next few months.
Shortly after achieving orbit, the crew set to work deploying their spacecraft’s Kurs-NA hardware, its electricity-generating solar arrays, and its communications and navigation appendages. In contrast to most previous missions since March 2013—which have followed a six-hour and four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile—the maiden voyage of Soyuz-MS adopted a “standard” rendezvous profile, lasting two days and 34 orbits. This has been done to allow for extended tests of the new spacecraft’s systems, including its ability to communicate via Russia’s Luch-5 tracking and relay satellite network for up to 70 percent of each orbit.
The longer rendezvous profile will also be followed by Soyuz MS-02, which is due to launch in September, carrying Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Andrei Borisenko and NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough. It remains to be seen, however, if Soyuz MS-03 in November will also follow the longer profile or revert to a fast rendezvous.
At present, Soyuz MS-01 is gaining ground on the space station, with docking at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module anticipated at 12:12 a.m. EDT Saturday, 9 July, about 50 hours after liftoff. This will be followed by a series of pressure and leak checks, before hatches into the orbiting outpost are opened and Ivanishin, Onishi, and Rubins join incumbent Expedition 48 Commander Jeff Williams of NASA and his Russian crewmates Alexei Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka. They will operate as a six-person team through early September, whereupon Williams’ crew will return to Earth and Ivanishin will assume command of Expedition 49. Current planning calls for Ivanishin, Onishi, and Rubins to land on 30 October, wrapping up 116 days in space, the shortest ISS increment in seven years.
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