Three spacefarers from three nations have launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for a two-day chasedown of the International Space Station (ISS) and four months of residency aboard the orbital outpost. Veteran Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov—embarking on his third long-duration voyage to the station—is joined by “rookies” Scott Tingle of NASA and Norishige Kanai of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The trio rose from Baikonur’s historic Site 1/5 aboard Soyuz MS-07 at 1:21 p.m. local time (2:21 a.m. EST) on Sunday, 17 December, and are due to dock at the station’s Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module at 3:43 a.m. EST on Tuesday, 19 December.
Even as the new crew began their pursuit of the station, the incumbent Expedition 54 crew of Commander Aleksandr Misurkin and Flight Engineers Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba were hours away from capturing SpaceX’s CRS-13 Dragon cargo ship at around 6 a.m. EST Sunday. The cargo ship launched successfully from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on Friday, 15 December.
As detailed previously by AmericaSpace, a two-day rendezvous is unusual for ISS-bound Soyuz crews, who have typically followed a shorter approach profile, docking at the station about six hours and four orbits after launch. Shkaplerov, Tingle and Kanai were originally scheduled to fly on 27 December, but their launch was moved forward by ten days, to avoid conducting a crew exchange over the Christmas period. However, the phasing constraints for a 17 December launch eliminated the possibility of a fast rendezvous and necessitated a longer regime. The crew will dock at Rassvet at 3:42 a.m. EST on 19 December, some 49 hours and 34 orbits into their mission.
The crew is an unusual one, for its three members did not know until earlier in 2017 that they would be flying together. Tingle and veteran Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Skvortsov were assigned last year to fly Soyuz MS-06 to the station in September 2017. They would be accompanied on the flight by “rookie” cosmonaut Ivan Vagner, making his first journey into space. However, Russia’s decision to reduce its number of cosmonauts aboard the ISS from three to two—a decision which hinged upon delays to the long-awaited Nauka (“Science”) laboratory module—forced Vagner’s removal from the crew. His original role in the systems-intensive Flight Engineer-1 position aboard the Soyuz was reassigned to Tingle. In order to retrain Tingle for his new duties, his launch with Skvortsov was moved to Soyuz MS-07 and slipped until the end of 2017. Norishige Kanai, for his part, had long been attached to the Soyuz MS-07 crew and retained his original seat as Flight Engineer-2. The crew line-up changed again in early 2017, when Skvortsov was dropped, owing to a temporary medical condition, and replaced by Shkaplerov.
Interestingly, the crew’s training throughout this year has seen them assigned to a number of different backup crews, with Kanai joining Aleksandr Misurkin and Mark Vande Hei on the Soyuz MS-05 backup crew and Shkaplerov and Tingle teamed with U.S. astronaut Shannon Walker on the Soyuz MS-06 backup crew. Following the completion of these assignments, the trio returned to training as the prime Soyuz MS-07 crew, wrapping up their last qualification exams on 28 November at the Star City cosmonauts training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow. Together with their own backup crew—Russian cosmonaut Sergei Prokopyev, U.S. astronaut Jeanette Epps and Germany’s Alexander Gerst—they visited Red Square in Moscow to pay homage to the lost space heroes of yesteryear. Elsewhere, their Soyuz MS-07 spacecraft was undergoing final checkout and fueling at Baikonur. It was integrated with the adapter of its Soyuz-FG booster on 8 December and, last week, was fully encapsulated within the bulbous payload fairing, ahead of rollout to the launch pad.
Early 4 December, the two crews were given a traditional bon-voyage ceremony, by their instructors, families and friends at Star City. “Toasting at Monday morning 8 a.m. is tough, but a tradition,” tweeted Gerst. “Now off to Baikonur.” Arriving in two separate aircraft, the crews reached the launch site in Kazakhstan later that day and pressed immediately into final preparations, the setting of national flags and—for the rookies—the planting of trees in the Avenue of Cosmonauts. “The big skies of Baikonur,” Gerst exulted. “Legendary gateway to the cosmos”. Indeed, this desolate site in former Soviet Central Asia has served as the point of departure for some of the most remarkable adventures in human space exploration: the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first spacewalker, the first two- and three-person spacefaring crews and the world’s first space station.
Good wishes were extended by U.S. astronaut Drew Feustel, who will join Shkaplerov, Tingle and Kanai in March 2018, when he launches to the station aboard Soyuz MS-08. At Baikonur, the crews participated in suited fit-checks of the Soyuz spacecraft, as highlighted in images tweeted by Gerst. The past week has been consumed with final suited fit-checks, evaluations of training materials and on Tuesday Tingle tweeted an image of the prime crew in their couches aboard Soyuz MS-07 itself.
Early Friday, the 162.4-foot-tall (49.5-meter) Soyuz-FG booster was rolled horizontally out of the Baikonur integration facility and taken to Site 1/5. Nicknamed “Gagarin’s Start”, this was the same site from which Yuri Gagarin began his pioneering spaceflight, way back in April 1961. Backup crew members Sergei Prokopiev of Russia, NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps and Germany’s Alexander Gerst tweeted a photograph of themselves beneath the “business end” of the huge rocket. “Rocket set-up (2): bottom half of launcher is hanging freely, resting on three support arms,” explained Gerst. “Their counter weights will make them flip back when vehicle lifts off. Ingenious! Service platform underneath main engines will slide out of the way before launch day. Big hole underneath.”
The two crews were awakened in Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel about 8.5 hours prior to today’s 1:21 p.m. local time (2:21 a.m. EST) launch. They showered and were disinfected, then submitted to microbial samples in support of the ISS research investigations that they will perform on-orbit. After ceremonially autographing the doors of their hotel rooms and receiving a blessing from a Russian Orthodox priest, they proceeded via bus to Site 254 to don their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits. Here, Shkaplerov, Tingle and Kanai were screened behind glass, offering them a final opportunity to bid farewell to their families and friends, including photographs with their children.
The prime crew then headed out to Site 1/5, arriving at the launch pad about 25 minutes later at 10:50 a.m. local time Sunday (11:50 p.m. EST Saturday). NASA Public Affairs Officer (PAO) Rob Navias described the conditions as “bitterly cold”, with temperatures hovering in the mid-teens Fahrenheit (about -9 degrees Celsius). Shkaplerov was inserted into the center commander’s seat of Soyuz MS-07’s descent module, with Tingle taking up his own position in the Flight Engineer-1 couch on the left-hand side of the vehicle. The final seat, in the right-side Flight Engineer-2 couch, was taken by Kanai.
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, to ensure that boiled-off cryogens were kept replenished and maintained at “Flight Ready” levels. At 1:06 p.m. local time (2:06 a.m. EST), with about 15 minutes to go, the Launch Abort System (LAS) was armed and transferred to Automatic Mode and the crewmen were instructed to close the visors of their space suits. At T-5 minutes, Shkaplerov’s controls were activated and internal avionics aboard Soyuz MS-07 were spooled-up to monitor booster 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 it was transferred from ground support utilities onto internal power, with the twin umbilical towers retracting away from the vehicle.
Ten seconds before T-0, 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 and ramped up to full power, before Site 1/5’s fueling tower retracted and Soyuz MS-07 roared into the early-afternoon Baikonur sky. “The fires lit, the engines start to roar…and liftoff,” exulted NASA commentator Dan Huot. With the four tapering boosters and the central core powering the initial launch phase, 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 its 49-hour, 34-orbit journey to reach the space station. At the time of launch, the ISS was orbiting about 260 miles (420 km) above north-central Kazakhstan.
Less 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, Shkaplerov, Tingle and Kanai 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. Interior views from the spacecraft showed Shkaplerov offering a thumbs-up to the camera, whilst Tingle gave a crisp Navy salute. The third stage pushed Soyuz MS-07 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-07 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 include fluffy toys, usually provided by the children, to “hang” inside the spacecraft, which would serve as their first indicator of the onset of microgravity. Nine minutes after leaving Baikonur, at 2:29:28 a.m. EST, the Soyuz MS-07 crew’s gravity indicator—a toy poodle, provided by Shkaplerov’s daughter—quit “hanging” and started “floating”, offering proof-positive that the three men were officially on-orbit.
Shortly after orbital insertion, the crew deployed Soyuz MS-07’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 on Tuesday. Upon docking, Shkaplerov, Tingle and Kanai will be greeted by the incumbent Expedition 54 crew of U.S. astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba, commanded by Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Misurkin. They will operate as a crew of six until Misurkin’s crew returns to Earth on 26/27 February, after which Shkaplerov will assume command of Expedition 55 until Soyuz MS-07 returns to Earth on 3 June. Early Sunday, Russia’s Interfax news agency revealed revised launch and landing dates for 2018, with Soyuz MS-08 scheduled to fly on 15 March, Soyuz MS-09 on 6 June, Soyuz MS-10 on 14 September and Soyuz MS-11 on 15 November. Next year also promises to be the last year in which as many as four piloted Soyuz are scheduled to launch. From 2019 onwards, Russia intends to launch only two Soyuz annually, with other crew members delivered to the station via NASA’s Commercial Crew vehicles. Additionally, Russia plans to launch three unpiloted Progress cargo ships in 2018, decreasing to two in 2019.