50th Space Station Expedition Crew Discusses September Mission

Standing in the same configuration that they will occupy in the Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft are (from left) Flight Engineer-2 Shane Kimbrough, Commander Sergei Ryzhikov and Flight Engineer-1 Andrei Borisenko. Photo Credit: Michael Galindo/AmericaSpace
Standing in the same configuration that they will occupy in the Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft are (from left) Flight Engineer-2 Shane Kimbrough, Commander Sergei Ryzhikov, and Flight Engineer-1 Andrei Borisenko. Photo Credit: Michael Galindo/AmericaSpace

Five weeks shy of the 16th anniversary since the first long-duration crew took up residence aboard the International Space Station (ISS), a pair of Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut are primed to launch on 23/24 September for the 50th expedition to the orbital outpost. Veteran spacefarer Andrei Borisenko and “rookie” Sergei Ryzhikov will join seasoned shuttle flier and spacewalker Shane Kimbrough when they fly from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard Soyuz MS-02. They will initially form the second half of Expedition 49, under Anatoli Ivanishin—who launched yesterday on Soyuz MS-01 with Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi and NASA’s Kate Rubins—before Kimbrough rotates into the command of Expedition 50 in late October.

Yesterday (Thursday), Kimbrough, Ryzhikov, and Borisenko took a break from training to gather at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, to discuss their forthcoming mission. According to provisional plans, they will remain in orbit for about five months, through the end of February 2017, and may welcome as many as six Visiting Vehicles (VVs) from Russia, the United States, and Japan and perhaps stage up to four U.S. EVAs. After Ivanishin’s crew departs the station, Soyuz MS-03 will arrive in early November, carrying Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky, France’s Thomas Pesquet, and former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson to round out Expedition 50 at its full, six-person strength.

In comments to AmericaSpace’s Michael Galindo, Kimbrough is clearly honored to command Expedition 50 and considers it a significant milestone in ISS Program history. “But it’s not about us, it’s about the team and about the milestone,” he stressed. In fact, Kimbrough had not even been selected for astronaut training when Expedition 1 Commander Bill Shepherd and his Russian crewmates Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev boarded the infant station on 2 November 2000 to begin a period of continuous occupation which has now lasted almost 16 years. That said, Shane Kimbrough was working for NASA at that time, as a flight simulation engineer on the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas. The son of a career Army officer, he earned a degree in aerospace engineering from the U.S. Military Academy and joined the Army in 1989. Over the course of the following decade, Kimbrough served in Operation Desert Storm and flew attack helicopters, including command of an Apache company.

Launching in September, the Soyuz MS-2 crew includes NASA's Shane Kimbrough (right), who will command the 50th long-duration expedition aboard the space station. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
Launching in September, the Soyuz MS-2 crew includes NASA’s Shane Kimbrough (right), who will command the 50th long-duration expedition aboard the space station. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

He gained a master’s degree in operations research from Georgia Tech in 1998, then took an assistant professorship in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at West Point. He arrived at NASA’s Aircraft Operations Division in September 2000 and was subsequently selected as an astronaut candidate in May 2004. Kimbrough made his first spaceflight aboard Shuttle Endeavour in November 2008, during which he participated in a pair of EVAs, totaling almost 13 hours. Returning from the 16-day STS-126 mission, he headed up the Robotics Branch of the Astronaut Office and was chief of the Vehicle Integration Test Office. In February 2015, NASA formally announced Kimbrough’s selection to the Expedition 49/50 crew, launching aboard the second Soyuz-MS spacecraft in the fall of 2016.

He will fly shoulder-to-shoulder with Sergei Ryzhikov—who will occupy the center seat and command the Soyuz during its voyage to and from the ISS—and veteran cosmonaut Andrei Borisenko. The 41-year-old Ryzhikov will be making his first space mission. He graduated from the Kachin Higher Military Aviation School in 1996, qualifying as a pilot-engineer in the Russian Air Force and held several aviation assignments over the next 10 years, flying L-39 high-performance jet trainers and MiG-29 fighters. Selected for cosmonaut training in October 2006, Ryzhikov completed his training in June 2009 and retired from active military service in mid-2012.

By contrast, the 52-year-old Borisenko already has extensive ISS experience, having previously lived and worked aboard the space station between April and September 2011, logging over five months in space. He served as a flight engineer on Expedition 27 and later led Expedition 28, becoming one of only four individuals to have commanded an ISS increment on his very first flight. Borisenko is a graduate of the Leningrad Physics and Mathematics School and subsequently studied flight and control dynamics at the Leningrad Military Mechanical Institute. A spell in the military was followed by a career with RSC Energia, during which he oversaw the motion control system aboard Russia’s Mir space station, and Borisenko was chosen as a cosmonaut candidate in May 2003. Qualifying two years later, he went on to serve on the Expedition 24-25 backup crew and was later teamed with Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Samokutyayev and NASA astronaut Ron Garan. The trio launched aboard Soyuz TMA-21 on 4 April 2011, just a week shy of the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering journey into space. By the time he returned to Earth in September, Borisenko had accrued 164 days in space.

In his opening remarks, Kimbrough referred to Borisenko’s previous command and noted that he expects to “draw from his experience” when he takes the helm of Expedition 50. Responding to a question from AmericaSpace, Kimbrough added that he followed the same training as his crewmates, but also went through an additional 10-12 hours of Commander-specific training for his tasks. Having been named in early 2015, the three men progressed through a dual-flow training regime and initially backed-up the Soyuz TMA-20M crew of Jeff Williams, Alexei Ovchinin, and Oleg Skripochka, who launched in March 2016. In support of this requirement, they completed their final exams as a backup crew in February, which allowed Kimbrough to see them “finally gelling” as an integrated unit.

Having previously flown aboard the shuttle, Kimbrough sees the first month of his expedition as remarkably similar. On STS-126 he performed two EVAs in close proximity, and in the early stages of his forthcoming flight he will do likewise. Two spacewalks—involving Kimbrough and Takuya Onishi—are scheduled for the October timeframe, tasked with replacing batteries on the P-6 segment at the furthest-port end of the Integrated Truss Structure (ITS). The astronauts will remove 12 old nickel-hydrogen (Ni-H) batteries and replace them with six smaller lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries. The capacity of each of the new batteries is equivalent to two of the old ones. Kimbrough and Onishi will remove the old batteries, install adapter palettes, and fit the new batteries.

Shane Kimbrough will command the 50th expedition to the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
Shane Kimbrough will command the 50th expedition to the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Those batteries are due to arrive at the space station in early October, aboard the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV)-6, provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). And in Kimbrough’s words, the arrival of a visiting vehicle is “like Christmas everytime one of those shows up.” Current plans call for HTV-6 to be robotically berthed at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node, where it will remain for about seven weeks, before it is detached and deorbited in late November. Shortly before the Japanese VV departs, SpaceX intends to launch its CRS-10 Dragon—flying as part of the Commercial Resupply Services contracts with NASA—and berth at the nadir interface of the Harmony node. Rounding out 2016, Russia will dock a new Progress-MS cargo ship in October and Orbital ATK may squeeze in its OA-7 Cygnus resupply mission at the tail end of December.

With the EVAs behind them, Kimbrough expects the period leading up to Christmas to be turned over almost exclusively to science. Like yesterday’s launch of Soyuz MS-01, it is expected that he, Ryzhikov, and Borisenko will also follow a two-day, 34-orbit rendezvous profile to reach the ISS. This is in contrast to the six-hour, four-orbit “fast rendezvous” regime which has been followed by most Soyuz missions since March 2013. Asked if the performance of Soyuz MS-01 will lead to MS-02 reverting to a fast rendezvous, Kimbrough replied that “unfortunately, no,” their crew would be confined to the cramped confines of their ship for two days. He explained that there are different test objectives associated with both the MS-01 and MS-02 missions. As the “right-seater,” in the Flight Engineer-2 position, Kimbrough has yet to be trained on these specific objectives, but he told AmericaSpace’s Michael Galindo that they will serve to “wring out” the Soyuz-MS software and test its various thruster combinations.

By year’s end, Kimbrough, Ryzhikov, and Borisenko will have said farewell to Ivanishin, Onishi, and Rubins and welcomed Soyuz MS-03 and its crew of Novitsky, Pesquet, and Whitson. One young audience member asked Kimbrough if there were any “do-nots” associated with being an astronaut. Stealing one another’s food, Kimbrough explained with a grin, and to laughter from his crewmates, was one definite no-no, although they admitted that they would share food in orbit. They will benefit from weekly video conferences with their loved ones—usually at weekends—and when asked what they will miss about home, friends and family came at the very top of the list.

Manifests frequently change, of course, but the look-ahead to 2017 is expected to see the capture and berthing of Orbital ATK’s OA-7 Cygnus at the beginning of January, followed by a Russian Progress at mid-month and SpaceX’s CRS-11 Dragon at the dawn of February. Two more U.S. EVAs are targeted for the February timeframe, right around the time that Kimbrough, Ryzhikov, and Borisenko are due to return to Earth. Current plans call for the trio to land aboard Soyuz MS-03 on 25 February, wrapping up 155 days in orbit.

Asked by AmericaSpace’s Michael Galindo about the differences in training between his 16-day shuttle mission and a multi-month ISS increment, Kimbrough described his first flight as akin to a sprint. Its extremely fast pace and one-year training regime was balanced by the fact that most of the crew’s preparations were done in the United States. This pace meant that Kimbrough returned to Earth with a sense of bewildered wonderment: “What just happened?” On the other hand, that kind of pace is impractical for a long-duration mission, necessitating a different training and operational mentality.

Borisenko, who has flown a long-duration mission before, was philosophical about his upcoming flight. Training for his second flight has been quite distinct to his first, although he admitted that having “too much knowledge” is good—“The more you know,” he told the audience, “the better off you are.” Kimbrough added that his Army career had taught him the values of teamwork and, for his part, rookie Ryzhikov intends to learn from the two men that he labels “VEPs”: Very Experienced Persons. “A very exciting opportunity,” was Ryzhikov’s summary of the mission.

Then, with a wry smile, he explained that as a fighter pilot of high-performance jet aircraft he had never flown faster than Mach 2 before. Mach 25—orbital velocity, pegged at 17,500 mph (28,800 km/h)—will be a very different flight regime to anything he has seen before.


Article jointly prepared by AmericaSpace’s Michael Galindo and Ben Evans.


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