Soyuz MS-17 Trio Return Safely to Earth, As NASA Makes Lunar Lander Decision

Soyuz MS-17’s descent module completes its final, parachute-aided drop to the desolate Kazakh steppe, after six months in orbit. Photo Credit: NASA

Expedition 64 has officially concluded with the safe departure and homecoming of Soyuz MS-17 crew members Sergei Ryzhikov, Sergei Kud-Sverchkov and Kate Rubins. Following a customary change-of-command ceremony on Thursday—in which Ryzhikov relinquished the helm of the International Space Station (ISS) to Shannon Walker—the outgoing trio boarded their Soyuz vehicle and closed the hatch early Friday evening.

Only hours before the crew’s return, NASA formally down-selected SpaceX to build the Human Landing System (HLS) to plant the first Artemis Team astronauts—of whom Rubins is one member—on the surface of the Moon in the coming years. Awarded a contract valued at $2.89 billion, SpaceX’s Starship pipped fellow HLS competitors Dynetics and a “National Team”, led by Blue Origin, to the post.

Video Credit: NASA

At the instant of undocking at 9:34 p.m. EDT Friday, Expedition 64 ended and Expedition 65 began under Walker’s command. A little over three hours later, at 12:55 a.m. EDT Saturday, following a searing hypersonic descent through the atmosphere, the bell-shaped descent module of Soyuz MS-17 touched down smoothly on the desolate Central Asian steppe, close to the Kazakh copper-mining city of Jezkazgan.

All told, Ryzhikov, Kud-Sverchkov and Rubins wrapped up a mission of 184 days, 23 hours and 10 minutes and completed some 2,960 orbits of Earth. In a little over six months, they traveled in excess of 78.4 million miles (126 million km). Launched from Baikonur last 14 October—on Rubins’ birthday—they followed the first-ever “ultra-fast” rendezvous profile, docking at the ISS only three hours and two orbits later.

Kate Rubins has now logged more than 300 days in space across her two missions. Photo Credit: NASA

The newcomers were welcomed aboard the station by resident Expedition 63 crewmen Chris Cassidy, Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, who concluded their own six-month stay a few days later and Ryzhikov took command of Expedition 64.

In mid-November, with the launch and arrival of Crew-1 astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi, Expedition 64 sprang up to the first-ever seven-person long-duration increment. Thus began a remarkable half-year of operations aboard the orbital outpost, in which Glover became the most flight-seasoned African-American spacefarer, hundreds of research investigations in planet biology, heart studies and cell growth were performed and six sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) were undertaken.

Rubins, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov spent a month as a crew of three, before Dragon Resilience arrived last November. As a consequence, Expedition 64 expanded into the first-ever seven-person long-duration crew. Photo Credit: NASA

Last November, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov attended to a multitude of tasks outside the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS), whilst Hopkins, Glover, Rubins and Noguchi supported five spacewalks between January and March to wrap up battery installation work on the P-4 truss, configure a Ka-band antenna and the Bartolomeo payloads-anchoring platform on Europe’s Columbus lab and prepare for future ISS Roll-Out Solar Array (iROSA) upgrades.

As Expedition 64 concludes, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov have both logged six hours and 48 minutes on their first career EVA, whereas Rubins—who conducted two spacewalks on this mission and another two on her 2016 Expedition 48/49 increment—has now totaled 26 hours and 46 minutes on four EVAs.

Soyuz MS-17, visible at left, has spent six months at the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: NASA

The crew also welcomed no less than three uncrewed visiting vehicles. SpaceX’s CRS-21 Dragon arrived in December, marking its first flight under the second-round Commercial Resupply Services (CRS2) contract, and carried a range of research payloads and NanoRacks’ Bishop commercial airlock uphill, before departing in mid-January. And in February, Russia’s Progress MS-16 and Northrop Grumman Corp.’s NG-15 Cygnus arrived at the space station. Another vehicle, Progress MS-15, also departed in February. More recently, Soyuz MS-18 launched and docked on 9 April, carrying new crewmen Oleg Novitsky, Pyotr Dubrov and Mark Vande Hei.

With their safe return to Earth, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov went directly to the Star City cosmonauts’ training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, whilst Rubins was set to fly home to Ellington Field in Houston, Texas. All told, Rubins has logged more than 300 cumulative days in space, setting her in fourth place behind Suni Williams, Christina Koch and Peggy Whitson on the list of most experienced female astronauts.

Kate Rubins works to prepare Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover for an EVA in January. Photo Credit: NASA

And Rubins is expected to press into her next assignment in the not-too-distant future. Last December, whilst on orbit with Glover, the two astronauts were announced as members of NASA’s 18-strong “Artemis Team”, the group of men and women who will support the first missions to lunar distance a few years hence. More recently, on 28 February, Rubins and Glover performed an EVA together, which marked the first spacewalk ever conducted by the Artemis Team.

Only hours before Ryzhikov, Kud-Sverchkov and Rubins landed, NASA on Friday named SpaceX and its under-development Starship vehicle as the prime Human Landing System (HLS) for those long-awaited lunar voyages. Alongside Dynetics and a “National Team” led by Blue Origin, SpaceX was initially selected last spring and the three competitors pressed into a ten-month design and development process.

SpaceX’s Starship ultimately won out against Dynetics and the Blue Origin National Team for the Human Landing System (HLS) award. Image Credit: NASA

Blue Origin’s large HLS mockup arrived in Houston for functional and habitability testing last summer, completed its rigorous System Requirements Review (SRR) in September and its impressive scope was laid bare in a January 2021 webinar. Meanwhile, in February, Dynetics wrapped up its Preliminary Design Review (PDR) for its own HLS concept.

Against this backdrop, SpaceX has continued to press ahead with Starship trials from Suborbital Pads A and B at its “Starbase” at Boca Chica in Texas. Since the HLS award last spring, no fewer than six test flights have been conducted, achieving altitudes as high as 7.7 miles (12.5 km), equivalent to about 41,000 feet. According to NASA, the firm-fixed-price, milestone-based contract to SpaceX is valued at $2.89 billion.

Flight plan schematic for Artemis-1, the first Space Launch System (SLS) mission, targeted for late 2021. Image Credit: NASA

“With this award, NASA and our partners will complete the first crewed demonstration mission to the surface of the Moon in the 21st century, as the agency takes a step forward for women’s equality and long-term deep-space exploration,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations and Mission Directorate (HEOMD). “This critical step puts humanity on a path to sustainable lunar exploration and keeps our eyes on missions farther into the Solar System, including Mars.”

“This is an exciting time for NASA and especially the Artemis Team,” added Lisa Watson-Morgan, program manager for HLS at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Ala. “During the Apollo program, we proved that it is possible to do the seemingly impossible: land humans on the Moon. By taking a collaborative approach in working with industry while leveraging NASA’s proven technical expertise and capabilities, we will return American astronauts to the Moon’s surface once again, this time to explore new areas for longer periods of time.”

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