Three spacefarers from the United States, Russia and Japan gathered at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, yesterday (Wednesday, 11 October), to discuss their upcoming voyage to the International Space Station (ISS). First-time NASA astronaut Scott Tingle was joined by fellow “rookie” Norishige Kanai of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and veteran Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov. The trio will launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard Soyuz MS-07 on 17 December, kicking off a four-month mission. They will initially form the second half of Expedition 54, before rotating into the core of Expedition 55, under Shkaplerov’s command, through their return to Earth in early April 2018.
The closeness of these three men—Tingle referred to them as being “like my brothers”—belies the comparatively short period of time that they have trained together. Originally, they were all assigned to different crews, with only a remote chance that they might meet up in space. In May 2016, NASA and the International Partners announced that Tingle and Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Skvortsov and Ivan Vagner would fly to the station aboard Soyuz MS-06 in September 2017. However, Russia’s decision last summer to reduce the number of its cosmonauts from three to two led to a major crew reshuffle, with Vagner dropped from the mission. This left the left-seat role of “Flight Engineer-1”, which requires in-depth knowledge of Soyuz systems, temporarily vacant. Tingle had previously trained for the less intensive, right-seat Flight Engineer-2 post and more time was needed to reassign him Vagner’s duty and bring him up to speed. As a result, Skvortsov and Tingle’s flight was moved to Soyuz MS-07, targeted for late in 2017.
Dovetailed into this plan, Norishige Kanai had been assigned to Soyuz MS-07 in August 2015, and had begun his formal training in January of the following year. As a child, he told the JSC audience, he had never dreamed of someday becoming an astronaut. “But for some reason,” he joked, “I am here!” A few months after Kanai’s assignment, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Ryazansky and NASA’s Randy “Komrade” Bresnik were also named to his crew. With Bresnik trained from the outset for the Flight Engineer-1 role, it made more sense to move him and Ryazansky forward to an earlier mission, whilst Kanai retained his spot on Soyuz MS-07. Last November, NASA revealed that Skvortsov, Tingle and Kanai would launch in October 2017. However, one more change lay ahead. Earlier this year, Skvortsov—a veteran of two previous long-duration ISS increments, totaling 345 days in space—was removed from the crew, reportedly owing to a temporary medical condition. He was replaced by Anton Shkaplerov, who has also chalked up two previous long-duration missions, having spent 165 days in orbit during Expeditions 29/30 and, more recently, logged 199 days during Expeditions 42/43.
The launch of Shkaplerov, Tingle and Kanai moved further to the right in the wake of delays to the Soyuz flight schedule in early 2017. In mid-January, Tass announced that the Soyuz MS-04 spacecraft needed to be replaced, following a suspected leak in its descent module. This correspondingly pushed its launch from March to April, although matters were also impacted by last December’s high-altitude loss of the Progress MS-04 cargo ship—caused by a third-stage malfunction in its Soyuz-U rocket—which prompted fleetwide engine inspections. Subsequently, the launch of Soyuz MS-05, previously targeted for late May, slipped until the end of July, pushing the return of that crew from October to December and resulting in a domino-like effect on Soyuz MS-07.
By late summer, Shkaplerov, Tingle and Kanai were confidently anticipating a launch on 27 December, but their flight was surprisingly brought forward to 1:20 p.m. local Baikonur time (2:20 a.m. EST) on the 17th. According to NASA’s Rob Navias, the change was effected in order to avoid conducting a crew exchange over the Christmas period. A double-edged sword in the proceedings is that ballistics analysis has shown that the earlier date will require a two-day and 34-orbit rendezvous profile, rather than the shorter six hours and four orbits. Since March 2013, most Soyuz crews have adopted the shorter rendezvous profile, which is more comfortable for the crew. “Moving the launch ten days earlier from 27 December to 17 December,” Mr. Navias told AmericaSpace, “eliminated a four-orbit rendezvous, due to phasing constraints for that day.”
Arriving at the station on 19 December, the newcomers will be welcomed by the incumbent Expedition 54 crew of Commander Aleksandr Misurkin and his U.S. crewmates Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba. The latter were launched aboard Soyuz MS-06 in September. If the present schedule holds, Shkaplerov, Tingle and Kanai will arrive to an ISS with three unpiloted visiting vehicles—Russia’s Progress MS-07, Orbital ATK’s OA-8 Cygnus and SpaceX’s CRS-13 Dragon—already in place. Their four-month increment is expected to see a new Progress and a further Dragon, as well as Japan’s next H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-7), all in the February-March timeframe.
Spacewalks are on the agenda for the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) during this period, with a possibility that Tingle and Kanai will participate in them. Last week, ISS Operations Integration Manager Kenny Todd noted that the long-planned replacement and lubrication of the Latching End Effector (LEE)-B “end” of the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 is expected during a spacewalk in January-February. Several other sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) are also planned, but Mr. Navias explained that all other tasks are currently under review. He stressed that the arrival of Boeing’s next International Docking Adapter (IDA-3)—providing a backup interface for Commercial Crew—is slated to arrive on station aboard SpaceX’s CRS-16 Dragon. That mission is tentatively scheduled for August 2018, placing the EVA to install IDA-3 onto its permanent home at the space-facing (or “zenith”) port of the Harmony node in the late summer or early fall.
At present, Misurkin, Vande Hei and Acaba are tracking a return to Earth in late February, after which Shkaplerov will assume command, taking the helm of Expedition 55. His increment will be expanded back up to six members by mid-March, with the arrival of Soyuz MS-08 and its crew of Russian cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev and U.S. astronauts Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold. No specific date has been set for the return of Shkaplerov, Tingle and Kanai, although “early April” has been noted, creating a likely mission duration of around 110 days for the three spacefarers.
As a Navy captain and mechanical engineer, Tingle’s military colleagues nicknamed him “Maker”, which he still uses today as his Twitter handle. “It did not have to do because I made things,” he told one questioner at yesterday’s news conference. “It had other reasons…which I won’t talk about today!” With a hearty laugh and a twinkle in his eye, he continued: “It’s more than a great coincifdence. I do like making things; I do like fixing things.” His four months aboard the ISS may enable him to do just that.