For the fourth and final time in 2016, a human crew is heading for a multi-month stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS), following Soyuz MS-03’s rousing, middle-of-the-night launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Commanded by Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky, flying shoulder-to-shoulder with France’s Thomas Pesquet and former NASA Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson, the mission got underway from Site 1/5 at Baikonur at 2:20 a.m. local time Friday, 18 November (3:20 p.m. EST Thursday, 17 November). Shortly after reaching low-Earth orbit, the crew deployed their spacecraft’s electricity-generating solar arrays and communications and navigational hardware, ahead of a two-day and 34-orbit rendezvous to reach their quarry. Docking at the space station’s Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module is presently targeted for 5 p.m. EST Saturday.
Departing Baikonur less than 29 days after Soyuz MS-02 rose from Earth, this marks the shortest interval between two Russian piloted launches in over three decades. Not since March 1981, when Soyuz T-4 and Soyuz 39 rocketed towards the Salyut 6 space station, within ten days of each other, have two crews of human explorers left the desolate Kazakh steppe in such close proximity. As outlined in AmericaSpace’s preview article, Soyuz MS-02 launched on 19 October, carrying Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Andrei Borisenko, together with NASA’s Shane Kimbrough, who initially joined Expedition 49 and rotated into the core crew of Expedition 50 at the end of last month. The arrival of Novitsky, Pesquet and Whitson this coming weekend will bring Expedition 50 up to a nominal six-person strength, through late February 2017, ahead of a period of reduced crewing next year and potentially into 2018.
Originally targeted to perform the very first “fast rendezvous” by the upgraded Soyuz-MS spacecraft—traveling to the ISS in four orbits and just six hours—Russian managers moved the launch 24 hours to the right, from 16 to 17 November. This required Soyuz MS-03 to revert to a longer rendezvous profile, lasting 34 orbits and a little more than two days. “The adjustment of the launch date came after an assessment by the Russians that put a four-orbit rendezvous on the 16th on the edge of being possible, due to orbital mechanics,” NASA’s Rob Navias told AmericaSpace. “As a result, they moved the date to 17 November to accommodate a 34-orbit rendezvous. Otherwise, the date would have been pushed further to the right to bring in a four-orbit rendezvous. Future launch dates will be assessed to try to accommodate four-orbit rendezvous cases, if they fit the overall ISS flight program. The MS vehicle can and will accommodate four-orbit rendezvous cases in the future, if those dates fit the overall ISS flight program.”
With Soyuz MS-03 having been encapsulated inside the payload fairing of its 162.4-foot-tall (49.5-meter) Soyuz-FG booster, the complete vehicle was rolled out to the launch complex at Baikonur’s Site 1/5—famously nicknamed “Gagarin’s Start”—on Monday, 14 November. Yesterday (Wednesday), the State Commission declared the readiness of the prime and backup crews for flight and Novitsky, Pesquet and Whitson were awakened about 8.5 hours before the scheduled launch. They showered and were disinfected, after which microbial samples were taken in support of scientific and biomedical experiments aboard the space station. The trio autographed the doors of their bedrooms in Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel, before submitting to a traditional blessing by a Russian Orthodox priest. Shadowing them throughout the proceedings were their backup crew: veteran Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, Italy’s Paolo Nespoli and NASA astronaut Jack Fischer.
Next stop for the departing crew was Site 254 at the cosmodrome, where they donned their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits and were granted the opportunity to bid farewell to family and friends, from behind glass screens. A notable attendee was NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, who will likely be attending his final piloted launch as the space agency’s head. Fully suited, Novitsky, Pesquet and Whitson were bussed out to Site 1/5, where the mammoth Soyuz-FG booster awaited their arrival. Since its initial use to launch Yuri Gagarin on humanity’s first space voyage, way back in April 1961, this complex has been used for dozens of Soviet and Russian manned missions. From Gagarin’s Start originated the flights which launched the first woman into space, the world’s first spacewalker and the first crew of an Earth-orbiting space station. Most recently, on 6/7 July 2016, the first flight of Russia’s upgraded Soyuz-MS piloted vehicle got underway from this exalted launch site. (Last month’s flight of Soyuz MS-02 launched from the rarely used Site 31/6.) Now, tonight, the most experienced female spacefarer in history, France’s tenth national astronaut and a decorated former Russian Air Force fighter pilot added their names to the list of humans who have departed Gagarin’s Start and headed beyond Earth’s atmosphere and into space.
Ascending the launch pad gantry, they were inserted into the beehive-shaped descent module of Soyuz MS-03, with Novitsky taking the center seat, commanding today’s mission into low-Earth orbit and the second flight of his cosmonaut career. To his left side was Pesquet, making his first space voyage, whilst in the right-hand seat was Whitson, embarking on her third long-duration expedition to the ISS.
In addition to a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1”, the Soyuz-FG booster carried liquid oxygen, which was continuously topped-off until close to T-0, in order to ensure that boiled-off cryogens were kept replenished and maintained at “Flight Ready” levels. In the final 15 minutes, the Launch Abort System (LAS) was armed and transferred to Automatic Mode and Novitsky, Pesquet and Whitson were instructed to close their space suit visors. At T-5 minutes, Novitsky’s controls were activated and internal avionics aboard the Soyuz spacecraft were spooled-up to monitor booster systems throughout the ascent phase.
From within the control bunker, the “launch key”—an actual, physical key—was inserted to enable the Soyuz-FG’s ordnance. Propellant tanks were pressurized and it was transferred from ground support utilities to internal power, with the twin umbilical towers retracting away from the vehicle. Ten seconds before liftoff, the turbopumps of the RD-108 first-stage engine and the RD-107 engines of the Soyuz-FG’s four tapering, strap-on boosters attained full speed. Five seconds later, the engines themselves ignited, ramping up to full power, before Site 1/5’s fueling tower retracted and Soyuz MS-03 roared into the Baikonur sky. Tonight’s flight became the first occasion that one of the new Soyuz-MS vehicles had launched in the hours of darkness. At the time of liftoff, the space station was orbiting 251 miles (404 km) over the South Atlantic Ocean, to the east of Argentina.
With the four tapering boosters and the core powering the initial launch phase, a total of five engines thus lifted the 672,000-pound (305,000 kg) rocket away from Earth and onto its two-day journey to the ISS. One minute and 58 seconds into the flight, the strap-on boosters—each of which measures 64 feet (19.6 meters) in length—were exhausted and jettisoned from the stack. By this point, Novitsky, Pesquet and Whitson were already traveling in excess of 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h). With the boosters gone, the core continued to burn hot and hard, until the RD-108 burned out at four minutes and 43 seconds after liftoff. At the instant of RD-108 shutdown, the Soyuz-FG and its human cargo had reached an altitude of 105.6 miles (170 km).
Next came the turn of the third stage, which executed a so-called “Hot Stage” burn, igniting its single RD-0110 engine whilst still attached to the core. A few seconds later, the 89-foot-tall (27.1-meter) core stage was jettisoned. The third stage pushed Soyuz MS-03 to a velocity in excess of 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h) and burned for four minutes, until it shut down at eight minutes and 45 seconds into the flight. By the time of RD-0110 cutoff and the separation of the 22-foot-long (6.7-meter) third stage, Soyuz MS-03 had attained a preliminary orbit with an apogee of 143 miles (230 km) and a perigee of 118 miles (190 km), inclined 51.66 degrees to the equator.
Shortly afterwards, the crew deployed their spacecraft’s electricity-generating solar arrays and communications and navigational hardware, as they settled down for a two-day chase of the space station. Docking is anticipated at 5 p.m. EST on Saturday evening and, following a series of pressurization and leak checks, hatches will be opened around 2.5 hours later, officially bringing Expedition 50 up to six-person strength.