Three new spacefarers from Russia, Italy and the United States have launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, bound for a 4.5-month tour of duty aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Veteran cosmonaut Sergei Ryazansky, seasoned NASA shuttle flyer and spacewalker Randy “Komrade” Bresnik and Italy’s oldest man in space, 60-year-old Paolo Nespoli, launched aboard Soyuz MS-05 at 9:41 p.m. local time (11:41 a.m. EDT) Friday. At the time of writing, the trio—who already boast nearly a year in space between them, spread across four prior missions—were scheduled to dock with the orbiting laboratory at 6 p.m. EDT, about six hours and four orbits after launch.
Today’s crew is unusual one, for Nespoli launched nine weeks later than originally planned and Ryazansky and Bresnik rose to orbit a full four months earlier than they should. The ISS crewing situation changed markedly last fall, when Russia announced its intention to reduce its number of cosmonauts aboard the station from three to two, pending the arrival of its long-awaited Nauka (“Science”) research module. In response to the deletion, crew members were reshuffled and Nespoli’s original crewmates—Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and NASA’s Jack Fischer—wound up launching as a two-man crew in April 2017. Meanwhile, partly due to the advanced stage of their training, Ryazansky and Bresnik were moved forward from their original slot on Soyuz MS-07 in November to Soyuz MS-05.
The result is that for at least the next several months, a total of four long-duration U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) crew members will be aboard the space station, with Nespoli and Bresnik due to join Expedition 52’s Fischer and Peggy Whitson, when they dock about six hours after launch. At this point, the ISS will once again play host to a full-up six-member crew for the first time in more than three months.
The astronauts and cosmonauts will work together for a period of about five weeks, before Yurchikhin, Fischer and Whitson return to Earth in early September, leaving Bresnik in command of Expedition 53 through Soyuz MS-05’s landing on 14 December.
His crew will be restored to six-man strength by Soyuz MS-06 arrivals Aleksandr Misurkin, Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba, due to arrive on 13 September. During the Expedition 53 increment, Bresnik’s crew expects to welcome three visiting vehicles: Russia’s Progress MS-07 and Orbital ATK’s OA-8 Cygnus in mid-October and SpaceX’s CRS-13 Dragon in November. Current plans call for two U.S. spacewalks in the October-November timeframe. During Expedition 53, Nespoli is expected to secure a new record for the most flight-experienced Italian spacefarer, eclipsing Samantha Cristoforetti, whilst in September Bresnik and Misurkin will celebrate their 50th and 40th birthdays, respectively.
In readiness for today’s launch, Ryazansky, Bresnik and Nespoli and their backups—Misurkin, Vande Hei and Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai—arrived at Baikonur on 16 July to begin several days of refresher training and ceremonial activities. As outlined by both Bresnik and Nespoli on Twitter, they participated in the raising of their national flags and conducted an all-up fit-check of the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft, clad in their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits.
Traditionally, first-time flyers plant a tree in Baikonur’s Avenue of Cosmonauts. Ryazansky and Nespoli have already planted their trees, before their respective Soyuz launches in December 2010 and September 2013, respectively. Bresnik, a veteran Space Shuttle astronaut, was embarking on his first Soyuz launch out of Baikonur and was granted the opportunity to plant his own tree.
Soyuz MS-05 was then encapsulated inside its 162.4-foot-tall (49.5-meter) Soyuz-U booster and rolled out to Site 1/5—the famed “Gagarin’s Start”—on Wednesday, 26 July. “It’s bad luck for the prime crew to see the #Soyuz roll-out to the launch pad,” tweeted Nespoli, “but we’ll get 3 front-row seats for the real show Friday!”
Both crews were awakened in Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel about 8.5 hours before Friday’s 9:41 p.m. local time (11:41 a.m. EDT) launch. They showered and were disinfected, then submitted to microbial samples in support of the ISS research investigations to be performed on-orbit.
Although Ryazansky and Nespoli have both flown relatively recently, it has been almost a decade since Bresnik last experienced weightlessness, aboard shuttle Atlantis in November 2009. He was obviously keenly excited to embark on his second space mission. “Dear Earth,” he tweeted early Friday, “I leave you today for a little while. I will relish the view of you as I gaze upon you from the night’s sky tonight.”
After customarily autographing the doors of their hotel rooms and receiving a blessing from a Russian Orthodox priest, Ryazansky, Bresnik and Nespoli proceeded via bus to Site 254 to don their Sokol suits. Here, they were screened behind glass, which offered them a final opportunity to bid farewell to their families and friends. The crew then headed out to Site 1/5, which is the same location used by Yuri Gagarin to launch on his pioneering orbital spaceflight, way back in April 1961.
Upon arrival at the pad, Ryazansky was inserted into the center commander’s seat of the Soyuz MS-05 descent module. Although civilian engineers have commanded Russian space missions many times since April 1979, Ryazansky is the first civilian scientist—a biologist, to be precise—to lead a Soyuz into orbit. Joining him in the left-hand Flight Engineer-1 seat was Bresnik, with Nespoli taking up the right-side Flight Engineer-2 position.
Already loaded aboard the Soyuz-FG was a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1”, with liquid oxygen being continuously topped-off until close to T-0, thereby ensuring that boiled-off cryogens were kept replenished and maintained at “Flight Ready” levels. At 9:26 p.m. local time (11:26 a.m. EDT), about 15 minutes before launch, the Launch Abort System (LAS) was armed and transferred to Automatic Mode and Ryazansky, Bresnik and Nespoli were instructed to close their helmet visors.
At T-5 minutes, Ryazansky’s controls were activated and internal avionics aboard Soyuz MS-05 were spooled-up to monitor vehicle systems throughout ascent. From within the control bunker, the “launch key”—an actual physical key—was inserted to enable the booster’s ordnance. Propellant tanks were pressurized and the Soyuz-FG was transferred from ground support utilities onto internal power. Site 1/5’s twin umbilical towers were retracted. Ten seconds before T-0, the turbopumps of the RD-108 first-stage engine and the RD-107 engines of the four tapering boosters attained full speed.
Five seconds later, the engines themselves ignited, ramping up to full power, before the fueling tower retracted and Soyuz MS-05 roared into the steadily darkening Baikonur sky. With the four tapering boosters and central core powering the initial climb-out, a total of five engines punched out a combined total of 930,000 pounds (422,000 kg) of thrust to lift the 672,000-pound (305,000 kg) rocket away from Earth and onto a six-hour and four-orbit “fast rendezvous” to reach the ISS.
Les than two minutes after liftoff, 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, Ryazansky, Bresnik and Nespoli were traveling in excess of 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h). With the boosters gone, the Soyuz-FG core continued to burn hot and hard, until the RD-108 was exhausted a little under five minutes into the flight. At the instant of RD-108 shutdown, the vehicle and its trio of human passengers had reached an altitude of 105.6 miles (170 km) above the Home Planet.
Next came the turn of the third stage, which performed a so-called “Hot Stage” burn, igniting its singla RD-0110 engine whilst still attached to the core. A few seconds thereafter, the 89-foot-tall (27.1-meter) core was jettisoned. The third stage pushed Soyuz MS-05 to a velocity in excess of 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h) and burned for four minutes, until it shut down a little under nine minutes after departing Baikonur. By the time of RD-0110 cutoff and the separation of the 22-foot-long (6.7-meter) third stage, the spacecraft 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.
It has become traditional for Soyuz crews to carry fluffy toys, usually provided by their children, to “hang” inside the spacecraft and serve as their first indicator of the onset of microgravity. In Soyuz MS-05’s case, Nespoli recently tweeted that his son, Max, had “finally agreed” to lend one of his Transformers toys as one of three gravity indicators. Bresnik also tweeted an image of a Stars-and-Stripes-emblazoned toy which will serve as his personal gravity indicator.
Shortly after orbital insertion, the crew deployed Soyuz MS-05’s electricity-generating solar arrays and communications and navigation antennas, before settling into a condensed phase of rendezvous maneuvers, ahead of docking at the ISS about six hours later.
At the time of writing, Ryazansky, Bresnik and Nespoli are in the process of a series of up to five Delta-Velocity (DV) “burns” to align their orbital parameters with that of the ISS and its waiting Expedition 52 crew of Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and Flight Engineers Jack Fischer and Peggy Whitson. According to the timeline, Soyuz MS-05 will dock at the station’s Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module at 6 p.m. EDT, some six hours into the mission. When the hatches are opened a couple of hours later, the ISS crew will be restored to six members for the first time in more than three months.