Expedition 63 Returns to Six-Crew Strength With Soyuz MS-17 Arrival on Station

Soyuz MS-17 approaches docking at the International Space Station (ISS), a mere three hours and three minutes after launch. Photo Credit: NASA TV

For the first time in six months, six astronauts and cosmonauts will eat dinner together tonight aboard the International Space Station (ISS), following Wednesday’s safe launch and record-speed arrival of Soyuz MS-17 crew members Sergei Ryzhikov, Sergei Kud-Sverchkov and Kate Rubins, the first woman ever to launch into space on a birthday. At the time of the docking, only three hours and three minutes after liftoff, the two spacecraft were traveling 261 miles (420 km) over the Mediterranean Sea.

Video Credit: NASA

The trio of spacefarers lifted off from rarely-used Site 31/6 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 10:45 a.m. local time (1:45 a.m. EDT), the five engines of their Soyuz-2.1a booster punching out over 930,000 pounds (422,000 kg) of propulsive yield to push them into space.

A little over three hours and two circuits of the home planet later, Ryzhikov smoothly guided his ship to a docking at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the station’s Rassvet module. And following standard pressurization and leak checks, hatches were opened and the newcomers were welcomed aboard by incumbent Expedition 63 Commander Chris Cassidy and his Russian crewmates Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.

It was the end of a busy day and the close of an exceptionally busy few months for Rubins, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov. The trio were formally announced as Soyuz MS-17’s prime crew back in June, making theirs one of the shortest training regimes for any long-duration ISS crew in the program’s history.

Commanded by veteran cosmonaut Sergei Ryzhikov (center), the Soyuz MS-17 crew also includes seasoned NASA flyer Kate Rubins (left) and first-time cosmonaut Sergei Kud-Sverchkov (right). Photo Credit: NASA

However, they carry a wealth of experience: nearly three hundred cumulative days in space between them and two sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA), totaling 12 hours and 46 minutes. Rubins spent almost four months on the station as part of Expeditions 48/49 in July-October 2016, whilst Ryzhikov completed a six-month stint on Expeditions 49/50 between October 2016 and April 2017. As such, during a brief handover period that October, Rubins and Ryzhikov spent a few days together in space. For Kud-Sverchkov, however, this is his first flight.

Following the completion of their training in Star City, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, the prime crew and their backups—seasoned veterans Oleg Novitsky and Mark Vande Hei, together with first-timer Pyotr Dubrov—flew in to Baikonur on 27 September.

They participated in final suited fit-checks of their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits and Soyuz MS-17 itself and completed other traditional pre-flight rituals, including the raising of U.S., Russian and Kazakh national flags. Veterans Ryzhikov and Rubins also helped “rookie” spacefarer Kud-Sverchkov to plant his ceremonial tree in Baikonur’s famed Avenue of Cosmonauts.

Prime and backup crew members for Soyuz MS-17 gather outside the tiny Baikonur cottage where Yuri Gagarin slept on the night before he became the first man in space. From left to right are Kate Rubins, Sergei Kud-Sverchkov, Sergei Ryzhikov, Oleg Novitsky, Pyotr Dubrov and Mark Vande Hei. Photo Credit: NASA

Both crews were awakened in the Cosmonaut Hotel about 10.5 hours prior to liftoff. They showered and were disinfected, before submitting to microbial sampling in support of the ISS research experiments, before proceeding to Site 254 to begin the process of donning their Sokol suits. This provided the crew a final opportunity to see friends and family, albeit from behind glass screens. Jokesters Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov could not help taking the opportunity to prank, pretending to fall asleep on each other’s shoulders at one point.

The prime crew were then bussed out to Site 31/6 to board Soyuz MS-17, atop the 162.4-foot-tall (49.5-meter) Soyuz-2.1a booster. Ryzhikov was inserted into the center commander’s seat of the descent module, flanked by Kud-Sverchkov in the left-side Flight Engineer-1 couch and Rubins in the right-side Flight Engineer-2 couch.

Hatches were then closed and as the three crew members awaited a launch, a range of music was piped into the cabin, with several Russian-language songs and even U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You” audible on the loop at one point.

The Soyuz-2.1a booster was transported out to Site 31/6 in a horizontal configuration on Sunday, before being raised to the vertical. Photo Credit: NASA

Fifteen minutes before T-0, the Launch Abort System (LAS)—tasked with pulling the spacecraft away from the rocket in the event of an ascent emergency, as happened in October 2018—was placed onto internal power and armed.

At T-5 minutes, Ryzhikov’s controls were activated and internal avionics were spooled-up to monitor Soyuz-2.1a systems during the climb to orbit. From within the Baikonur control bunker, the launch “key” was inserted to enable the giant rocket’s ordnance. With ten seconds to go before liftoff, the turbopumps of the RD-108A core stage engine and the RD-107A engiens of the four tapering, strap-on boosters attained full speed and Soyuz MS-17 left Earth precisely on time at 10:45 a.m. local time (1:45 a.m. EDT).

Two minutes into the flight, as planned, the four tapering boosters were jettisoned at an altitude of 28 miles (45 km). By this stage, Ryzhikov, Kud-Sverchkov and Rubins were traveling in excess of 1,100 mph (1,770 km/h). And with the boosters gone, the RD-108A continued to burn hot and hard, until it shut down a little less than five minutes after liftoff. At the moment of shutdown, the crew had attained an altitude of 105.6 miles (170 km).

The Soyuz MS-17 crew bids farewell at Site 31/6, at the base of the steps leading to their Soyuz-2.1a booster. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

The third stage of the Soyuz-2.1a—powered by a single RD-0110 engine—then roared to life with an impulse of 67,000 pounds (30,400 kg) to push Soyuz MS-17 to a near-orbital velocity of 13,420 mph (21,600 km/h) and eventually shutting down at just shy of nine minutes into the flight. By the time of spacecraft separation, the three spacefarers were orbiting Earth with an apogee of 143 miles (230 km) and a perigee of 118 miles (190 km), inclined 51.66 degrees to the equator.

As is traditional in Soyuz flights, the spacecraft carried a zero-gravity indicator “talisman”, provided by a family member. In Soyuz MS-17’s case, it was a small knitted cosmonaut doll, made by Kud-Sverchkov’s wife. Shortly afterwards, Soyuz MS-17’s solar arrays were satisfactorily deployed, spanning 35 feet (10.6 meters) from tip to tip.

Three hours and three minutes after leaving Baikonur, faster than any previous ISS-bound vehicle, Ryzhikov guided Soyuz MS-17 to a smooth 4:48 a.m. EDT docking at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Rassvet module. It was faster by far than even the “ultra-fast” Progress dockings, which have achieved a personal-best of three hours and 19 minutes to date. Hatches were opened at 7:07 a.m. EDT, as the combined spacecraft flew high above the Tasman Sea. The arrival of the new vehicle joins four others: Soyuz MS-16 belonging to Cassidy & Co., a pair of Russian Progress cargo ships launched last April and July and Northrop Grumman Corp.’s NG-14 Cygnus, which arrived earlier in October.

Pictured during a suited ground simulation in the cramped confines of the Soyuz are (from foreground to background) Kate Rubins, Sergei Ryzhikov (partially obscured) and Sergei Kud-Sverchkov. Photo Credit: NASA

The two crews will spend a week working together, before Cassidy formally hands over command of the ISS to Ryzhikov on the afternoon of 20 October. At this stage, Expedition 64 will officially begin and last until next April.

Soyuz MS-16 is due to undock from its berth on the station’s space-facing (“zenith”) Poisk module at 7:33 p.m. EDT on 21 October and Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner will land in Kazakhstan about 3.5 hours later. In doing so, they will wrap up an increment of almost 196 days, which has featured four EVAs, the arrival of two Progress cargo ships, the NG-14 Cygnus, Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) and Dragon Endeavour on “Bob and Doug’s Excellent Adventure”.

Sergei Krikalev (left) and STS-88 Commander Bob Cabana became the first humans to board the International Space Station (ISS) in orbit, way back in December 1998. Soyuz MS-17 marks the 100th launch of humans toward the ISS. Photo Credit: NASA

With the departure of Soyuz MS-16 next week, Ryzhikov, Kud-Sverchkov and Rubins will have the station to themselves for a while, before Dragon Resilience arrives in the early-to-mid November timeframe, carrying Crew-1 astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi. This will increase Expedition 64 to its full seven-person strength, the first time that an ISS increment has boasted more than six long-duration members.

As detailed yesterday by AmericaSpace, Expedition 64 is expected to welcome as many as seven visiting vehicles—including the second test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner in early January—and four cargo ship departures. Up to five spacewalks are planned with a multitude of objectives, ranging from activating the Barolomeo payloads-anchoring platform and Columbus Ka-Band Antenna (COL-Ka) on Europe’s Columbus lab to configuring the exterior of the station for the departure of the long-serving Pirs docking adapter and the arrival of Russia’s Nauka (“Science”) module.

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