Soyuz MS-12 Crew Primed for Thursday Launch to Space Station

The Soyuz MS-12 crew of (from left) Alexei Ovchinin, Nick Hague and Christina Koch during their flight to Baikonur last month. Photo Credit: NASA

Five months after an abortive attempt to reach the International Space Station (ISS), Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin and NASA’s Nick Hague will have a second chance to get to the sprawling orbital outpost on Thursday, 14 March, when they again launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The pair originally flew aboard Soyuz MS-10 last October, but their mission was aborted during ascent and—thanks to the superb functionality of the launch escape system—the two men were plucked away from their failing Soyuz-FG booster and achieved a safe landing on the Kazakh steppe.

With just 154 days having passed between their two flights, Thursday’s mission will mark the shortest interval in Russian spaceflight history between two launches by the same crew, pipping the harrowing 1983 experience of Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Gennadi Strekalov by just a few days.

The Soyuz rocket is raised into vertical position on the launch pad, Tuesday, March 12, 2019 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Expedition 59 crewmembers Nick Hague and Christina Koch of NASA, along with Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos, will launch March 14, U.S. time, on the Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome for a six-and-a-half month mission on the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

Ovchinin and Hague will ride Soyuz MS-12, scheduled to launch from Baikonur’s historic Site 1/5—known as “Gagarin’s Start”—at 12:14 a.m. local time Friday 15th (3:14 p.m. EDT Thursday 14th), flying shoulder-to-shoulder with NASA astronaut Christina Koch. Interestingly, although Ovchinin and Hague did not achieve low-Earth orbit, it was noted last December that since they “launched and landed in a spacecraft on an intended mission to the International Space Station, NASA considers them to have achieved the status of flown cosmonauts.” As such, on Thursday Ovchinin will embark on the third mission of his cosmonaut career, with Hague making his second flight and Koch her first.

THE CREW

Hague and Koch are classmates, having been selected by NASA back in June 2013 as part of its eight-strong “8-Balls” group of astronaut candidates. Hague hails from Belleville, Kan., where he was born on 24 September 1975. He completed high school in Hoxie, Kan., then entered the Air Force Academy and graduated in 1998 with a degree in astronautical engineering. He moved into active military duty as a second lieutenant and, following a master’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he was assigned to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., in August 2000.

ABOVE: Watch live coverage of the launch on March 14 starting at 2:00pm EST (launch scheduled for 3:14pm EST)

His assignments focused on advanced spacecraft technologies and in 2004 Hague graduated as a flight test engineer at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. After graduation, he worked on the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-15 Eagle and T-38 Talon at the 416th Flight Test Squadron, then deployed to Iraq in late 2004 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Two years later, Hague joined the Department of Aeronautics faculty at the Air Force Academy, instructing students in aeronautics, linear control system analysis and design and scuba. He was subsequently selected for the Air Force Fellows program in 2009, served as a member of the personal staff in the U.S. Senate as an advisor on national defense and foreign policy and later was a congressional appropriations liaison for the U.S. Central Command. In 2012, he became deputy division chief for research and development for the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, before being selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in June 2013.

Also selected alongside Hague that summer, and beating 6,100 qualified applicants, was Christina Hammock. She was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., on 2 February 1979, although she considers Jacksonville, N.C., as her hometown. She completed schooling in North Carolina and earned a undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering and physics, together with a master’s credential in electrical engineering, all from North Carolina State University in Raleigh in 2001-2002. After graduation, Hammock—today surnamed Koch, following her marriage—worked as an electrical engineer at the Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Md., and concurrently led a physics laboratory course at Montgomery College. During 2004-2007, she completed a winter-over season at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica as a research associate, working as a member of the firefighting and ocean/glacier search-and-rescue teams.

Returning to the United States from Antarctica, she became an electrical engineer at the Space Department of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., working on the Jupiter Energetic Particle Detector Instrument (JEDI) for NASA’s Juno spacecraft, together with radiation instrumentation for the 2012-launched Van Allen Probes. Koch also volunteered as a science and mathematics tutor at Anne Arundel Community College, before returning to Antarctica and Greenland from 2010 and serving as a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) field engineer in Barrow, Alaska, and station chief of the American Samoa Observatory. It is perhaps unsurprising that Koch lists travel among her interests and, certainly, with Expedition 59/60, she will travel further than ever before.

Both Hague and Koch graduated from astronaut candidate training in July 2015 and received technical assignments. In March 2017, Hague became the first member of the 8-Balls to receive a flight assignment, teamed with Alexei Ovchinin—and, originally, another Russian cosmonaut, Nikolai Tikhonov—for launch aboard Soyuz MS-10 in fall 2018. Last May, Koch was assigned to Soyuz MS-12, targeted for spring 2019. With the failure of Soyuz MS-10 to achieve orbit, last December NASA announced that Koch would retain her place on Soyuz MS-12 and that Ovchinin and Hague would join her, fast-tracking them back into space at the earliest possible opportunity. Koch’s original MS-12 commander, veteran cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, will now fly in September on Soyuz MS-15.

The eight-strong “8-Balls” class of NASA astronauts were selected in June 2013. Front row, left to right, are Drew Morgan, Anne McClain and Josh Cassada. Back row, left to right, are Nick Hague, Jessica Meir, Christina Koch, Nicole Mann and Victor Glover. Photo Credit: NASA

Commanding Soyuz MS-12 will be veteran cosmonaut Alexei Nikolayevich Ovchinin, who has already logged six months aboard the ISS, having launched aboard the final Soyuz TMA spacecraft in March 2016 and returned to Earth the following September. Born in the ancient city of Rybinsk, on the Volga River, within proximity of Moscow and St. Petersburg, on 28 September 1971, Ovchinin attended high school in his home town, before entering the Russian military. He was initially a cadet at Borisoglebsk Higher Military Pilot School from 1988 through 1990, then a student at Yeisk Higher Military Pilot School in 1990-1992, whereupon he qualified as a pilot-engineer. Ovchinin spent the next six years as a pilot-instructor in the Training Aviation Regiment at Yeisk, before moving on to become an instructor and aviation section commander of Krasnodar Military Aviation Institute. From 2003 until his selection as a cosmonaut candidate, he commanded an aviation unit of the 70th Separate Test Training Aviation Regiment of Special Purpose.

Ovchinin was selected for cosmonaut training in October 2006, qualified in June 2009 and left active duty in the Russian Air Force as a lieutenant-colonel in 2012. A year later, he joined five U.S., Italian and Japanese astronauts in the CAVES extreme environment test mission, deep in the Sa Grutta caves on the island of Sardinia. He launched aboard Soyuz TMA-20M in March 2016 and returned to Earth the following September, after 172 days in space and 2,679 orbits of the Home Planet.

In the Integration Building at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft is ready for encapsulation into the nose fairing of the Soyuz booster rocket March 6. Expedition 59 crew members Nick Hague and Christina Koch of NASA and Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos will launch on March 14, U.S. time, on the Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome for a six-and-a-half month mission on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

THE MISSION

Following the joint NASA-Roscosmos decision to recycle Ovchinin and Hague to join Koch on Soyuz MS-12, their launch was initially targeted for late February 2019, but has since been moved back by two weeks to mid-March. Last month, vacuum-chamber testing of their three-part spacecraft was completed at Baikonur and the prime crew and their backups—Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Skvortsov, Italy’s Luca Parmitano and NASA astronaut Drew Morgan—flew to the desolate Kazakh launch site on 26 February. In the following days, they participated in final training sessions, raised the national flags of the United States, Russia and Kazakhstan and planted ceremonial trees in the Avenue of Cosmonauts. The 162.4-foot-tall (49.5-meter) Soyuz-FG booster was rolled out to the pad on Tuesday, 12 March.

Assuming an on-time launch Thursday, Soyuz MS-12 will follow a truncated six-hour and four-orbit “fast rendezvous” to reach the ISS, with docking scheduled to occur at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) Rassvet module. Following the completion of pressurization and leack checks, hatches will be opened and Ovchinin, Hague and Koch will be welcomed by the station’s incumbent crew of Commander Oleg Kononenko of Russia, Canada’s David Saint-Jacques and NASA astronaut Anne McClain, who have been aboard since December.

With more than 250 research investigations planned over the coming months, there will be little time for the new arrivals to settle in, before heading straight to work. Three sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA)—featuring McClain, Hague, Koch and Saint-Jacques, and including the first all-female spacewalk in history—are planned in late March and early April to replace 12 aging nickel-hydrogen batteries with six smaller lithium-ion packs on Power Channels 2A and 4A of the station’s P-4 truss.

Crew Dragon ‘Demo-1’ soaring on its maiden voyage to the International Space Station March 2, 2019 from historic pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. Photo: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace.com

Unpiloted cargo ships will visit frequently throughout spring and summer, with Russian Progress freighters slated to fly in April and July, a Northrop Grumman Corp. Cygnus vehicle launching in April, two SpaceX Dragons in April and July—the second of which will transport the second Boeing-built International Docking Adapter (IDA) for Commercial Crew—and a Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), laden with six new lithium-ion batteries for the station’s P-6 truss, in September. With the recent completion of SpaceX’s unpiloted Demo-1 mission of its Crew Dragon, a similar test of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is slated for late April or May, before both Commercial Crew partners take aim for their initial crewed test-flights later this year. Present plans call for the SpaceX Demo-2 mission, with veteran NASA flyers Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken aboard, to launch as soon as late summer or fall, with a possibility that the first piloted Starliner may fly with NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann, together with Boeing test pilot and former shuttle commander Chris Ferguson, later in the summer or fall.

Kononenko, Saint-Jacques and McClain will return to Earth aboard their Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft in late June, after which Ovchinin will take command of the ISS and Expedition 60 will officially commence. Two weeks later, in early July, Skvortsov, Parmitano and Morgan will launch aboard Soyuz MS-13 to restore six-person crew strength and Soyuz MS-14 is scheduled to fly a month-long mission in unpiloted capacity in August-September, in order to evaluate the capabilities—including a modified launch escape system—of the new Soyuz-2 rocket, which is expected to begin flying humans from April 2020.

Boeing spacecraft technicians working on the CST-100 Starliner which will launch on the company’s first crewed orbital flight test later this year. Photo: Mike Killian / Americaspace.com

Much speculation has abounded in recent months about the return schedule for various U.S. and Russian crew members, particularly in light of the fact that the first United Arab Emirates (UAE) spacefarer is expected to fly a short-duration mission of around ten days aboard Soyuz MS-15 in September. To free up a seat aboard Soyuz MS-12 for his return to Earth, it has been suggested—though as-yet unconfirmed by NASA—that one crew member might enjoy a longer than nominal stay aboard the ISS. At one point, several sources suggested that one of the two men could remain on the station for over a year, although this seems increasingly unlikely, and some observers have suggested that Hague will spend nine months in orbit, returning in December aboard Soyuz MS-13, with Morgan in turn returning in the third seat aboard Soyuz MS-15 in April 2020.

However, in comments provided to AmericaSpace, NASA’s Rob Navias explained definitively that “Hague returns to Earth in October and, as of now, Morgan returns to Earth in December”, although he added that “regardless of when he returns”, Hague will serve as the left-seat Flight Engineer-1 aboard the Soyuz.

Launching alongside the UAE spaceflight participant are expected to be Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka—who will rejoin his one-time crewmate Christina Koch—and former NASA Chief Astronaut Chris Cassidy, who will remain aboard the space station until late spring 2020. According to Mr. Navias, “we expect Koch to remain on-board ISS” beyond October, with Ovchinin and Hague joining the UAE astronaut aboard Soyuz MS-12 for the return to Earth on 3 October.

Asked if Koch would land on Soyuz MS-13 in December, or remain aboard even longer, perhaps returning on Soyuz MS-15 in April 2020, Mr. Navias advised us that “the Flight Program is under review”. In either case, a landing in December 2019 or later will provide Koch with a minimum-duration mission of nine months aboard the ISS, the second-longest ever achieved by a female spacefarer, after Peggy Whitson.

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