The smallest Soyuz crew in more than a decade will rocket towards the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday, 20 April, heading for a shorter-than-normal increment of 4.5 months aboard the orbital outpost. Veteran cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin—who becomes only the eighth Russian citizen to chalk up a fifth space mission—and “rookie” NASA astronaut Jack Fischer will launch aboard Soyuz MS-04 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 1:13 p.m. local time (3:13 a.m. EDT). Although theirs will be the fourth flight of Russia’s upgraded Soyuz-MS vehicle, it will be the first to attempt a same-day rendezvous and docking with the ISS. Assuming an on-time liftoff, Yurchikhin and Fischer will guide Soyuz MS-04 to a docking at the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module at 7:23 p.m. Baikonur time (9:23 a.m. EDT), where they will form the second half of Expedition 51, under the command of record-breaking U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson.
Not since the launch of Soyuz TMA-2 in April 2003, carrying Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and NASA’s Ed Lu, to continue ISS habitation in the dark days after the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia, has such a small number of humans been launched to the multi-national research facility. In that case, a reduction from the original three-strong crew became necessary as NASA and its international partners transitioned station operations to a series of six-month “caretaker” missions, until shuttle operations could resume and ISS construction could pick up in earnest. The change in crew size for Soyuz MS-04, however, has come about through a quite different set of circumstances.
Snowy-haired and moustachioed Fyodor Nikolayevich Yurchikhin becomes, at 58 years of age, the second-oldest Russian ever to venture into space. He is affectionately nicknamed “The Boss” by Fischer, who also compared them to an old married couple, having trained closely together for the last two years. Born in the Black Sea coastal city of Batumi, in Georgia, Yurchikhin grew up wanting to be a goalkeeper for the Soviet national football team. When his teacher told him that footballing was a useless career, Yurchikhin proclaimed another goal: to become a cosmonaut.
After leaving high school in 1976, he entered Moscow Aviation Institute—“because a lot of Russian cosmonauts finished this institute, too”—and graduated as a mechanical engineer in 1983. Yurchikhin spent more than a decade in Russia’s Mission Control Center, near Star City, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, scheduling and providing daily planning for crews aboard the Salyut 7 and Mir space stations. He also served as lead engineer during the shuttle-Mir program. Selected for cosmonaut training in July 1997, Yurchikhin qualified in November 1999. Two years later, he earned a doctoral degree in economics from Moscow State University.
He flew his first space mission aboard shuttle Atlantis on STS-112 in October 2002, which delivered the S-1 segment of the Integrated Truss Structure (ITS) to the ISS. Yurchikhin then went on to complete no less than three long-duration increments aboard the station. He commanded Expedition 15 from April-October 2007 and flew again from June-November 2010, forming part of the crews of both Expedition 24 and 25. More recently, he flew again in May-November 2013, during which he served as half of Expedition 36 and rotated into the command of Expedition 38. Across his missions, Yurchikhin completed 52 hours of spacewalking in eight sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA). Returning to Earth from his fourth mission, he accrued 537 days in space and is presently the world’s 13th most experienced spacefarer. By the time he returns from his next mission in early September, he will move into seventh place.
By complete contrast, 43-year-old U.S. Air Force Col. Jack David Fischer—also known by his military callsign “2Fish”—will embark on the first flight of his astronaut career, having been selected by NASA in June 2009. Fischer hails from a construction family and grew up in Louisville, Colo., and caught the space exploration bug during a visit to see his grandfather at the age of six. It was his family, Fischer has said, which instilled “the work ethic and sense of team that has guided my life”. After high school in Lafayette, he entered the Air Force Academy to study astronautical engineering. Upon receipt of his bachelor’s degree in 1996, Fischer was directed to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics, graduating in 1998.
He was detailed to Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas and subsequently underwent instruction on the F-15E Strike Eagle fighter. Fischer flew operationally in Southwest Asia, supporting Operations Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch over Iraq and Afghanistan, in the months after 9/11. Next, he attended test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., graduating in 2004, before moving into F-15 and weapons testing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Fischer later served as a project pilot, working with the Small Diameter Bomb—which entered operational service on the F-15E in the fall of 2006—and returned to Edwards to test the F-22 Raptor air-dominance fighter. After a Strategic Policy Intern at Air Command and Staff College in Washington, D.C., and a pair of six-month tours at the Pentagon, Fischer was selected as a NASA astronaut.
Although he and Yurchikhin were assigned in August 2015 to fly a space mission together, their voyage to the ISS has changed markedly in recent months. Originally teamed with European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Paolo Nespoli, of Italy, they anticipated launching aboard Soyuz MS-05 in May 2017. In this capacity, they would initially form the second half of Expedition 52—joining Commander Aleksandr Misurkin and Flight Engineers Nikolai Tikhonov and NASA’s Mark Vande Hei—before rotating into Expedition 53, under Yurchikhin’s command, through their own return to Earth in the fall of 2017.
All this changed late last summer, when delays to the launch of the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM) prompted a decision to cut the number of Russian cosmonauts on the space station in 2017 from three to two. This spelled particularly bad news for “rookie” cosmonauts Tikhonov and Ivan Vagner, who were pulled from their spots on Soyuz MS-04 in March 2017 and Soyuz MS-06 in September 2017. And their departure meant that the critical left-seat role of Flight Engineer-1 aboard the Soyuz—a role which demanded an in-depth knowledge of spacecraft systems—was rendered vacant.
Vande Hei had previously trained for the less-systems-intensive Flight Engineer-2 role and with the crew change additional time was needed to re-train him for Flight Engineer-1 duties. As a consequence, Vande Hei’s launch with Misurkin slipped from March to September 2017 and the pair will now launch aboard Soyuz MS-06. Jack Fischer, on the other hand, had trained as a Flight Engineer-1 from the outset and it made greater sense to move him and Yurchikhin forward on the manifest and reassign them to Soyuz MS-04. Paolo Nespoli remained aboard Soyuz MS-05 and will launch in July 2017, shoulder-to-shoulder with Russia’s Sergei Ryazansky and NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik.
Factored into the mix has been NASA’s recent decision to add a cadre of U.S. astronauts to fill the available slots on several forthcoming ISS increments, thereby continuing the station’s six-person capability and potentially allowing for up to 50 percent greater science yield. At the vanguard of this decision has been Peggy Whitson herself, who will extend her own return to Earth from June to September 2017, creating a unique situation with as many as four U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) crew members aboard, simultaneously, for a long-duration mission. Although four or more long-duration USOS astronauts have resided on the ISS in the past—most recently during the week-long Expedition 37/38 crew changeover in November 2013—they have ordinarily only been together on-orbit for a matter of days.
Original plans called for Yurchikhin and Fischer to launch aboard Soyuz MS-04 in late March, but in mid-January Tass announced that their original spacecraft (serial numbered “734”) would be replaced by a new vehicle (“735”). Suggestions that a technical problem lay behind the Soyuz switch were initially dismissed, with the Tass report noting that 734 had been built with Russian budgetary funding and 735 under NASA contract. However, in late January, Tass explained that “a possible leak” in the descent module of the 734 Soyuz was indeed a factor. By early March, NASA confirmed that Soyuz MS-04 would launch no sooner than 20 April.
By the middle of March, the spacecraft had undergone pressurization and leak checks at Baikonur and at month’s end Yurchikhin and Fischer and their backups—Sergei Ryazansky and Randy Bresnik—wrapped up final qualification exams at Star City. Both crews arrived at Baikonur on 5 April and headed directly into last-minute training with Soyuz MS-04 itself, including leak checks of their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits, extensive tests of the spacecraft’s radio communications and laser ranging systems and familiarization with on-board data files. The four astronauts and cosmonauts also raised their respective national flags, together with the flag of Baikonur’s sovereign nation, Kazakhstan. Additionally, as the only “rookie” member of the prime crew, Fischer ceremonially planted a tree along the Avenue of Cosmonauts.
Elsewhere, Soyuz MS-04 was fully fueled and encapsulated within its payload shroud, ahead of roll over to the integration building on 14 April for installation atop the Soyuz-FG booster. “It’s possible we are a little bit excited,” Fischer tweeted that morning, “about getting aboard this sexy rocket and heading to the space station.” Rollout of the 162.4-foot-tall (49.5-meter) Soyuz-FG from the integration building to Site 1/5—famously nicknamed “Gagarin’s Start” and used by the Russian space program to launch most of its piloted missions, ever since Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering voyage, way back in April 1961—took place early yesterday (Monday, 17 April).
The prime and backup crews will be awakened about 8.5 hours before Thursday’s scheduled launch. They will shower and be disinfected, after which microbial samples will be taken in support of ongoing ISS research activities. Traditionally, the four men will autograph the doors of their bedrooms in Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel, then be blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest. Next, they will proceed by bus to Site 254, where Yurchikhin and Fischer will don their Sokol suits and bid farewell to family and friends from behind glass screens. The prime crew will then head out to Site 1/5, where Yurchikhin will be inserted into the center commander’s seat of Soyuz MS-04. Fischer will take up his own position in the left-side Flight Engineer-1 couch.
In keeping with tradition, Fischer has selected some music to be piped into the Soyuz cabin during the countdown. He recently tweeted that he had chosen his all-time favorite song—Garth Brooks’ “The River”—as well as the Air Force song, Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” from the movie Top Gun and Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon”. The latter tune was selected jointly by Fischer and his wife, Elizabeth.
Launch is scheduled for 1:13 p.m. local time (3:13 a.m. EDT) Thursday and the Soyuz-FG will inject the spacecraft into 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. For the first time in over a year, Soyuz MS-04 will attempt a same-day rendezvous and docking, arriving in the vicinity of the ISS only four orbits and six hours after launch. Although same-day ISS rendezvous and docking was first trialed by Soyuz TMA-08M in March 2013—and has been accomplished by a third of all subsequent piloted missions—this is the first occasion that the upgraded Soyuz-MS will have done so. The first three Soyuz-MS flights, in July, September and November 2016, all followed longer, two-day rendezvous regimes, in order to test the new spacecraft’s capabilities and adhere to orbital phasing demands.
With the month-long slip to their launch, and with their return to Earth still targeted for 3 September, Yurchikhin and Fischer will enjoy a shorter-than-normal increment, spanning some 136 days aboard the ISS. They will initially form the second half of Expedition 51, under Peggy Whitson’s command, and also including Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky and Frenchman Thomas Pesquet. “Awesome news smothered in awesome sauce!” was Fischer’s characteristically enthusiastic tweet, after learning that former Chief Astronaut Whitson would join him throughout the entirety of his increment. “Totally stoked to hang w/ @AstroPeggy longer on orbit.”
However, with the extension to Whitson’s stay, it is now envisioned that Novitsky and Pesquet will return to Earth aboard Soyuz MS-03 on 2 June, wrapping up over 196 days in orbit. Whitson will command the “new” Expedition 52—becoming the first woman to lead two successive ISS increments—before the trio are joined by Soyuz MS-05 and its crew of Ryazansky, Bresnik and Nespoli in late July. Newly restored to six-person strength, Expedition 52 will contined for five more weeks, before Whitson joins Yurchikhin and Fischer aboard Soyuz MS-04 and returns to Earth on 3 September.
Yurchikhin and Fischer can expect a varied program of scientific research and a regular influx of visiting vehicles during their 4.5 months aboard the station. And they must both hit the proverbial ground running. Less than two days after arrival, Fischer will support Pesquet and Whitson in the rendezvous and capture of Orbital ATK’s OA-7 Cygnus cargo ship, which brings over 7,450 pounds (3,380 kg) of payloads in support of 250 investigations during Expeditions 51 and 52. A U.S. Extravehicular Activity (EVA)—originally planned for early April—is provisionally targeted for no sooner than 12 May, one of whose tasks is the removal of a faulty EXPRESS Pallet Controller Assembly (ExPCA) and replacement with an upgraded unit. That upgraded unit is heading uphill aboard the OA-7 Cygnus, thus explaining the five-week delay to the U.S. EVA.
Had the spacewalk occurred in early April, it would have been performed by Whitson and Pesquet, but it has now been decided that Fischer will take Pesquet’s place. “The Astronaut Office and the ISS Program decided to give Fischer a chance to conduct a spacewalk during Expedition 51, where before he would not have had a scheduled spacewalk to perform,” NASA’s Rob Navias told AmericaSpace. “The decision was based on “spreading the wealth”, so that as many astronauts as possible receive spacewalk experience. Pesquet had already conducted two superb spacewalks, so the time was right to give Fischer an opportunity.” A Russian EVA will also be performed by Yurchikhin and Ryazansky in mid-August.
With the OA-7 Cygnus expected to remain attached to the Unity node through late June or early July, the crew will welcome SpaceX’s CRS-11 Dragon—whose cargo includes the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), the Multiple User System for Earth Sensing Facility (MUSES) and the Roll-Out Solar Array (ROSA)—to a berthing at the Harmony node. CRS-11 is slated to depart the station in late June, with the arrival of the CRS-12 Dragon expected in early August, carrying the Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) instrument. Dovetailed into the manifest, Russia’s Progress MS-05 cargo ship will depart the ISS in mid-June, wrapping up its four-month stay. Barely a day after its departure, Progress MS-06 will launch from Baikonur and, following a six-hour fast rendezvous, will arrive for its own multi-month residency.