Six weeks since the safe return of the Expedition 48 core crew, their backups—Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Andrei Borisenko, together with NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough—are destined to launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, 19 October, bound for a four-month increment aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The trio are set to rise from the infrequently-used Site 31 at the Central Asian spaceport at 2:05 p.m. local time (4:05 a.m. EDT) aboard the Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft and will dock at the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module on Friday.
Like their predecessors, the Soyuz MS-01 crew of Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Ivanishin, NASA’s Kate Rubins, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Takuya Onishi, the new visitors will follow a two-day rendezvous profile, completing 34 orbits of Earth before reaching the ISS. This profile is somewhat longer than the standard six-hour and four-orbit “fast rendezvous,” utilized by most incoming Soyuz crews since March 2013, and is being performed on the first two Soyuz-MS missions in order to test upgraded systems and communications capabilities.
Ryzhikov, Borisenko, and Kimbrough were originally scheduled for a night launch on 23/24 September. In anticipation of this event, their Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft—which comprises a spherical orbital module, cylindrical instrument module, and the beehive-shaped descent module for the crew—underwent extensive leak checks in the vacuum chamber at Baikonur in early September. The prime and backup crews flew into Baikonur from the cosmonauts’ training center at Star City, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, on 8 September, and set about their final preparations. They performed fit-checks aboard the spacecraft in their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits, ahead of the loading of Soyuz MS-02 with propellants and compressed gases for flight. It was then encapsulated within its payload fairing and integrated atop the Soyuz-FG launch vehicle. A direct descendent of the R-7—the world’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM)—this vehicle consists of a central “core” stage and four tapering, strap-on boosters, fueled by liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1.” Original plans called for the stack to be rolled horizontally from the assembly building to Site 31 on 22 September.
However, on 17 September, less than a week before launch, the mission was abruptly postponed, due to technical difficulties with Soyuz MS-02 itself. No new launch date was immediately issued, although it later became clear that two potential targets were under consideration: 12 October or 1 November. These were considered the most favorable options in terms of ballistic conditions. In the meantime, the technical difficulty was found to be associated with damaged cabling inside the Soyuz descent module. Specifically, the control equipment was activated by the landing system cable, situated behind the crew’s seats, which had become jammed during test operations. The prompt resolution of the problem allowed managers to revise their No Earlier Than (NET) date to 19 October.
In the days after the delay was announced, the prime and backup crews returned to Star City to wrap up their final training. They returned to Baikonur on 7 October and pressed ahead with suit and spacecraft leak checks, as well as reacquainting themselves with the radio communications system and laser range-finder, reviewing flight plans and participating in a manual ISS docking “drill.” Soyuz MS-02 was then encapsulated within its payload fairing on 11 October, ahead of integration with the Soyuz-FG booster on the 13th.
The stack was transferred horizontally by rail to Site 31 on 16 October and was elevated to its vertical height of 162.4 feet (49.5 meters). This is only the third occasion that an ISS-bound crew has flown from Site 31/6, following on the heels of Soyuz TMA-06M in October 2012 and Soyuz TMA-15M in November 2014. Normally, Site 1—nicknamed “Gagarin’s Start”—is used for piloted missions, but is currently undergoing routine maintenance and will return to nominal operations with the Soyuz MS-03 launch on 16 November. First used for R-7 launches in January 1961, Site 31 saw its first human flight with Soyuz 3 in October 1968 and supported several piloted Soyuz and unpiloted Progress missions during the late 1970s through the mid-1980s. It was then exclusively the preserve of unmanned missions for more than a decade, before Progress operations to Russia’s Mir space station got underway in June 1992. In the ISS era, Site 31 entered service relatively recently: its first Progress launch came in February 2009 and its first piloted Soyuz launch in October 2012.
Tomorrow (Wednesday), Ryzhikov, Borisenko, and Kimbrough and their backup crew—Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Misurkin and Nikolai Tikhonov, together with NASA’s Mark Vande Hei—will be awakened about 8.5 hours before launch. They will shower and be disinfected, after which microbial samples will be taken in support of scientific and biomedical experiments. After a traditional blessing by a Russian Orthodox priest and the signing of their Cosmonaut Hotel doors, they will head for Baikonur’s Site 254, where they will don their Sokol suits. This will also give them the chance, albeit from behind glass screens, to bid farewell to family and friends. At Site 31, the crew will be inserted into the Soyuz MS-02 descent module, with Ryzhikov in the central commander’s couch, flanked by Borisenko on his left side, in the “Flight Engineer-1” position, and Kimbrough on his right, as “Flight Engineer-2.”
Retired U.S. Army Col. Robert Shane Kimbrough was born on 4 June 1967 in Killeen, Texas, the son of a career Army officer. After attending high school in Georgia, he entered the Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., earning a degree in aerospace engineering in 1989. Kimbrough was commissioned into the Army and, after finishing flight school as a Distinguished Graduate, was designated an Army aviator in 1990. He deployed to Southwest Asia and served as an attack helicopter platoon leader, aviation liaison officer, and attack helicopter battalion operations officer during Operation Desert Storm. In 1994, Kimbrough was detailed to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he commanded an Apache helicopter company. He completed a master’s degree in operations research at Georgia Tech in 1998 and served as an assistant professor of mathematics at West Point.
Two years later, in September 2000, Kimbrough was assigned by the Army to NASA’s Aircraft Operations Division (AOD) at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas, as a flight simulation engineer on the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA). Selected as an astronaut candidate in May 2004, he received his first flight assignment as a Mission Specialist on STS-126. Launched in November 2008, Shuttle Endeavour’s 16-day mission saw Kimbrough perform two EVAs—totaling almost 13 hours—to upgrade and maintain the ISS. His crew also expanded the station’s living quarters, ahead of moving to an enlarged crew of six members from May 2009 onward. Returning from STS-126, Kimbrough headed up the Robotics Branch of the Astronaut Office and was later chief of the Vehicle Integration Test Office. In February 2015, NASA formally announced his selection to the Expedition 49/50 crew, launching aboard Soyuz MS-02 in the fall of 2016.
Sergei Nikolayevich Ryzhikov came from the town of Bugulma, in today’s Republic of Tatarstan. He was born on 19 August 1974 and, after graduation from the Kachin Higher Military Aviation School, he qualified as a pilot-engineer in the Russian Air Force. From his graduation in 1996, Ryzhikov spent 10 years in several aviation assignments, flying L-39 high-performance jet trainers and MiG-29 fighters. He was selected for cosmonaut training in October 2006—alongside his future Expedition 50 crewmate Oleg Novitsky—and in mid-2012 retired from active military duty.
A veteran cosmonaut who lived and worked aboard the ISS during April-September 2011, Andrei Ivanovich Borisenko is one of only four humans to have commanded the multi-national orbiting outpost on his very first flight. Born in Leningrad—today’s St. Petersburg—on 17 April 1964, Borisenko studied physics and mathematics, before moving into 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 and wrapped up a command of Expedition 28.
Soyuz MS-02 will launch at 2:05 p.m. local time (4:05 a.m. EDT) on Wednesday, their booster rising under the combined impulse of the RD-108 core engine and the four RD-107 engines of the tapering boosters. The latter will be jettisoned two minutes into the ascent, with the RD-108 continuing the push beyond the “sensible” atmosphere. The final stage will then boost Ryzhikov, Borisenko, and Kimbrough to a velocity of 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h). By the time it separates, nine minutes into the flight, Soyuz MS-02 will have attained a preliminary orbit of 125 x 160 miles (200 x 260 km), inclined 51.66 degrees to the equator. Making his first flight, Ryzhikov will become the 547th human to enter space.
Theirs will be the second voyage of the new Soyuz-MS spacecraft, which is equipped with higher-efficiency solar arrays, better propulsion system redundancy, the new “Kurs-NA” (“Course”) rendezvous hardware, a lighter flight computer, and improved telemetry, control, and autonomous navigation capabilities. Like Soyuz MS-01, launched last 6/7 July, Ryzhikov, Borisenko, and Kimbrough will follow a two-day rendezvous profile to reach the ISS. During this extended flight, they will extensively test their spacecraft’s systems, including its ability to communicate via Russia’s three-satellite Luch-5 tracking and data-relay network for up to 70 percent of each orbit.
Assuming an on-time launch, the crew will dock at the station’s Poisk module at 5:59 a.m. EDT on Friday, 21 October, a little under 52 hours after launch. Following customary pressurization and leak checks, the hatches between the Soyuz and the ISS will be opened at about 8:35 a.m. EDT and the new arrivals will be welcomed by the incumbent Expedition 49 crew of Ivanishin, Rubins and Onishi, who on Friday 14 October passed their 100th day in orbit. This will set the scene for a week-long “handover” of operations, before Ivanishin’s crew boards their Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft on 30 October and returns to Earth. However, the handover will not be entirely smooth sailing, for Orbital ATK’s OA-5 Cygnus cargo mission—launched via the first Antares 230 booster from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., late Monday—is scheduled to arrive and be robotically berthed at the station on Sunday 23 October. The capture and berthing operation will be overseen by “old hands” Rubins and Onishi.
With the return of Expedition 49, Kimbrough will rotate into the command of the 50th ISS increment, almost 16 years to the day since the space station’s first long-duration crew took up residency on 1 November 2000. Although his own launch was postponed by several weeks, it is anticipated that the return of Kimbrough’s crew to Earth on 25 February 2017 remains unchanged, producing an approximate mission duration of 129 days. Moreover, the arrival of the second half of Expedition 50—the Soyuz MS-03 crew of Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky, Frenchman Thomas Pesquet, and former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson—remains anchored to its original launch date on 16 November. Unlike MS-01 and MS-02, this crew will revert to the “fast rendezvous” profile, docking at the space station about six hours after leaving Baikonur. They are also expected to launch from Baikonur’s Site 1, following the completion of its maintenance phase. With just 28 days between them, this is the shortest interval between a pair of piloted Soyuz launches since March 1981.
Kimbrough’s expedition remains very much in flux, in light of recent delays to the Visiting Vehicle (VV) manifest. Following the on-the-pad loss of an Upgraded Falcon 9 rocket, during preparations for the Amos-6 Static Fire Test on 1 September, it seems unlikely that SpaceX will be in a position to launch its next Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) Dragon cargo ship until at least year’s end. On the other hand, Orbital ATK has rebounded into operations, with the triumphant return-to-flight of its Antares booster, and JAXA has recently announced that its next H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-6) will fly no sooner than 9 December. Significantly, HTV-6 will deliver six high-capacity lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries for Power Channels 1A and 3A on the station’s S-4 truss segment. These will take the place of 12 older nickel-hydrogen (Ni-H) batteries. Early plans called for Kimbrough and Onishi to install two of these batteries during a pair of EVAs in October, with the remainder installed robotically via Canadarm2 and its Dextre “hand.” The delays to HTV-6 have pushed these EVAs into January 2017, toward the end of Kimbrough’s increment.
With Kimbrough commanding the 50th long-duration crew to reside aboard the ISS, this will be almost double the 28 expeditions which lived on Mir between March 1986 and June 2000. With the Soyuz MS-03 having arrived in mid-November, the remainder of 2016 should see Russia launch its Progress MS-04 cargo ship on the first day of December, followed by HTV-6 around a week later. Another Orbital ATK Cygnus (OA-7) is scheduled for the tail end of December, with the undockings of Progress MS-03 and HTV-6 anticipated in January 2017. The Li-Ion battery installation EVAs—likely by Kimbrough and Pesquet—are tentatively penciled-in for January, with SpaceX’s next Dragon (CRS-10) and Russia’s Progress MS-05 slated for the January-February timeframe. In recent comments made at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, Peggy Whitson noted that the Expedition 50 crew will also have a broad plate of scientific research during their increment.