Russian-American Trio Blasts Off and Boards International Space Station After Fast Track Trajectory

The Soyuz MS-06 rocket blasts off with the Expedition 53-54 crew towards the International Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 (Wednesday, Sept. 13, Kazakh time). Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Barely a week and a half after the thrilling conclusion to the record breaking space endurance mission by NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, a new Russian-American trio blasted off for the International Space Station (ISS) on a Russian Soyuz capsule and boarded safely early this morning Wednesday, Sept. 13, after arriving as planned on a fast track orbital trajectory.

NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei, Joe Acaba and Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos launched aboard the Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan overnight at 5:17 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, (2127 GMT), or 3:17 a.m. Baikonur time Wednesday, Sept. 13, on the Expedition 53 mission.

Following the flawless launch and achieving orbit the three man crew executed a perfect four orbit, six hour rendezvous and arrived at the orbiting laboratory complex at 10:55 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Sept. 12, (or Wednesday, Sept. 13, Kazakh time) where they will carry out a jam packed schedule of scientific research in a wide array of fields.

The entire launch sequence aboard the Soyuz rocket performed flawlessly and delivered the Soyuz capsule to its targeted preliminary orbit eight minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff followed by the opening of the vehicles pair of life giving solar arrays and communications antennas.

The whole event from launch to docking was broadcast live on NASA TV.

Soyuz reached the ISS after a rapid series of orbit raising maneuvers over four orbits and six hours to successfully complete all the rendezvous and docking procedures to attach to the station at the Russian Poisk module.

“Contact! We have mechanical contact,” radioed Misurkin.

The Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba and cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos is seen on the right approaching the International Space Station on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. The spacecraft docked to the station at 10:55 p.m. EDT. Credits: NASA Television

After conducting leak and safety checks the new trio opened the hatches between the Soyuz spacecraft and station at 1:08 a.m. EDT this morning, Sept. 13 and floated into the million pound orbiting outpost.

The arrival of Vande Hei, Acaba and Misurkin restores the station’s multinational habitation to a full complement of six astronaut and cosmonaut crewmembers.

They join Expedition 53 Commander Randy Bresnik of NASA and Flight Engineers Sergey Ryazanskiy of Roscosmos and Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency).

The station had been temporarily reduced to a staff of three for 10 days following the departure of the Expedition 52 crew including record setting Whitson, NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and veteran cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos.

This is the rookie flight for Vande Hei, the second for Misurkin and the third for Acaba. They will remain aboard the station for a planned five month long ISS expedition continuing into early 2018.

Vande Hei was selected as an astronaut in 2009. Misurkin previously flew to the station on the Expedition 35/36 increments in 2013. Acaba was selected as an astronaut in 2004. He flew on space shuttle mission STS 119 and conducted two spacewalks – as well as on the Expedition 31/32 increments in 2012 and has logged a total of 138 days in space.

Originally the Soyuz MS-06 was only to fly with a two person crew – Vande Hei and Misurkin after the Russians decided to reduce their cosmonaut crew from three to two to save money.

Acaba was added to the crew only in March of this year when NASA and Roscosmos brokered an agreement to fill the empty seat with a NASA astronaut, under an arrangement worked out for 5 astronauts seats on Soyuz through a procurement by Boeing, as compensation for an unrelated matter.

The Russian cosmonaut crew cutback enabled Whitson’s mission extension by three months and also proved to be a boon for NASA and science research. It enabled the US/partner USOS crew complement to be enlarged from three to four full time astronauts much earlier than expected.

This allowed NASA to about double the weekly time devoted to research aboard station – a feat not expected to happen until America’s commercial crew vehicles, namely Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon – finally begin inaugural launches next year from the Kennedy Space Center in mid-2018.

With Acaba and Vande Hei now on orbit joining Bresnik and Nespoli, the USOS crew stands at four and will continue.

The six crewmembers will carry out research supporting more than 250 experiments in astrophysics, biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science.

“During Expedition 53, researchers will study the cosmic ray particles, demonstrate the benefits of manufacturing fiber optic filaments in microgravity, investigate targeted therapies to improve muscle atrophy and explore the abilities of a new drug to accelerate bone repair,” says NASA.

Among the key investigations involves research on cosmic ray particles reaching Earth using ISS-CREAM, examining effects on the musculoskeletal system and exploring targeted therapies for slowing or reversal of muscle atrophy with Rodent Research 6 (RR-6), demonstrating the benefits of manufacturing fiber optic filaments in a microgravity environment with the Optical Fiber Production in Microgravity (Made in Space Fiber Optics) hardware, and working on drugs and materials for accelerating bone repair with the Synthetic Bone experiment to develop more effective treatments for patients with osteoporosis.

Expedition 53 Flight Engineers Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba of NASA and Soyuz Commander Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 (Wednesday, Sept. 13, Kazakh time), and arrived at the International Space Station at 10:55 p.m. to begin their 5.5-month mission aboard the station. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Bresnik, Ryazanskiy and Nespoli are scheduled to remain aboard the station until December. Whereas Vande Hei, Acaba and Misurkin are slated to return in February 2018.

Watch this cool Roscosmos video showing rollout of the Soyuz rocket to the Baikonur launch pad and erection in advance of launch. Credit: Roscosmos

Meanwhile one of the first tasks of the new trio will be to assist with the departure of the SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 spacecraft upcoming this Sunday, Sept 17.

Dragon will be detached from the Harmony module using the stations Canadian-built robotic arm on Sunday and released for a splashdown and retrieval in the Pacific Ocean Sunday morning. It is carrying some hardware items as well as scores of science samples.

SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

NASA TV will cover the release activities beginning Sunday at 4:30 a.m. EDT.

Visiting vehicle configuration at the International Space Station (ISS) after arrival of the Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft on Sept. 12, 2017. Credit: NASA

Watch for Ken’s onsite space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

The space station’s Expedition 53 crew members are (from left) Joe Acaba, Alexander Misurkin, Mark Vande Hei, Sergey Ryazanskiy, Commander Randy Bresnik and Paolo Nespoli. Credit: NASA
Expedition 53 Crew Insignia

NASA’s Peggy Whitson Safely Returns Home in Soyuz from Record Breaking Stay in Space

The Soyuz MS-04 vehicle is pictured the moment it touches down with the Expedition 52 crew inside comprising NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fisher and Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos on Sept. 3, 2017, Kazakhstan time. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA’s Peggy Whitson, America’s most experienced astronaut, returned to Earth safely and smiling Sunday morning on the steppes of Kazakhstan, concluding her record-breaking stay in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS) along with Soyuz crewmates Jack Fischer of NASA and Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos.

The multinational trio touched down softly on Earth inside their Soyuz MS-04 descent capsule on Saturday evening, Sept. 2 at 9:21 p.m. EDT (shortly after sunrise 7:21 a.m. Kazakhstan time, Sept. 3), some 90 miles southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan.

Whitson wrapped up a 288-day extended mission in obviously good health that began in November 2016, spanning 122.2 million miles and 4,623 orbits of Earth – completing her third long-duration stay on the orbiting science outpost spanning Expeditions 50, 51 and 52.

“A flawless descent and landing,” said NASA commentator Rob Navias during the live NASA TV coverage of the return of the ISS Expedition 52 crew Saturday afternoon and evening US time.

“The crew is back on Earth safe and sound.”

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos, and NASA astronaut Jack Fischer undergo routine initial medical checks after returning from their mission aboard the International Space Station at 9:21 p.m. EDT Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 (7:21 a.m. Kazakhstan time, Sunday, Sept. 3), landing southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan. Credits: NASA TV

She has now accrued a total of 665 days in space – more than any American astronaut – over the course of her illustrious career during which she set multiple U.S. space records spanning a total of three spaceflights.

Whitson’s 665 total accumulated days in space places her eighth on the all-time space endurance list – just 8 days behind her Russian crewmate and Soyuz Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin who now ranks 7th on the all-time list with 673 days in space on his five flights. She has exceeded the endurance record of her next closest NASA competitor by 131 days – namely NASA astronaut Jeff Williams.

The remarkable 57-year-old Ph.D biochemist by training has spent nearly 2 years of her entire life in space and she holds several other prestigious records as well – including more accumulated time in space than any other woman and the longest single spaceflight by a women – 288 days!

During this mission Whitson became the first woman to serve twice as space station commander. Indeed in 2008 Whitson became the first woman ever to command the space station during her prior stay on Expedition 16 a decade ago. Her second stint as station commander this mission began earlier this year on April 9.

Whitson also holds the record for the most spacewalks and the most time spent spacewalking by a female astronaut. Altogether she has accumulated 60 hours and 21 minutes of EVA time over ten spacewalks -ranking her third most experienced in the world.

Notably Soyuz Commander Yurchikhin ranks fourth in spacewalking experience. Only Russia’s Anatoly Solovyev and NASA’s Michael Lopez-Alegria have more spacewalking time to their credit.

NASA’s Jack Fischer completed his rookie spaceflight accumulating 136 days in space aboard the ISS.

Astronaut Peggy Whitson is pictured May 12, 2017, during the 200th spacewalk at the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Whitson originally launched to the ISS on Nov 17, 2016 aboard the Russian Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, as part of the three person Expedition 50 crew including flight engineers Oleg Novitskiy of Roscosmos and Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency).

Her flight was unexpectedly extended in flight after the Russian government decided to cut back on the number of space station crew cosmonauts this year from three to two to save money. Thus a return seat became available on this Soyuz MS-04 return flight after NASA negotiated an extension with Rosmoscos in April enabling Whitson to remain on board the orbiting outpost an additional three months beyond her than planned June return home.

Whitson’s mission extension proved to be a boon for NASA and science research enabling the US/partner USOS crew complement to be enlarged from three to four full time astronauts much earlier than expected. This allowed NASA to about double the weekly time devoted to research aboard station – a feat not expected to happen until America’s commercial crew vehicles, namely Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon – finally begin inaugural launches next year from the Kennedy Space Center in mid-2018.

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson after safe return to Earth on Sept. 2, 2017 ET. Credit: NASA

Descending dramatically while hanging below a single gigantic orange-and-white parachute the scorched Russian Soyuz vehicle fired its braking rockets just moments before touchdown in Kazakhstan to cushion the crew for a gentle landing under beautifully sunny skies.

A live NASA TV video feed captured the thrilling descent for over 14 minutes after the main parachute deployed all the way to the ground under clear blue sunny Sunday morning weather conditions and comfortably local Kazakh temperatures of 77 degrees F.

“Everything today went in perfect fashion from the undocking, to the deorbit burn to landing,” said Navias. “It went by the book with no issues.”

“We saw a spectacular 14 minute long live video of the Soyuz descent and landing.”

The Soyuz MS-04 carrying NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer and Fyodor Yurchikin of Roscosmos back to Earth from the International Space Station touched down at at 9:21 p.m. EDT Saturday, Sept. 2 (7:21 a.m. Kazakhstan time, Sunday, Sept. 3), southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan. Credits: NASA TV

Russian search and recovery forces quickly arrived via a cluster of MI-8 helicopters after the soft landing to begin their normal procedures to extract the three Expedition 52 crew members from their cramped Soyuz descent module.

Soyuz Commander Yurchikhin in the center seat was hauled out first, followed by Fischer in the left side seat and lastly Whitson in the right seat. All 3 were placed on reclining seats sitting side by side and appeared quite well, conversing and speaking via satellite phones.

A group of Russian and US medical teams were on hand to check the astronauts and cosmonauts health and help the crewmates begin readapting to the tug of Earth’s gravity they have not experienced after many months of weightlessness in space.

Whitson’s final planned news conference from space with the media to sum up her experiences this past Wednesday had to be cancelled due to the catastrophic flooding events from Hurricane Harvey impacting Houston and elsewhere in Texas – including Mission Control which was forced to close multiple days.

The crews had bid their final farewells earlier and closed the hatches between the Soyuz and station at 2:40 p.m. EDT Saturday.

After conducting final spacecraft systems checks the trio unhooked the latches and undocked from the International Space Station at 5:58 p.m. EDT to begin their voyage home through the scorching heats of reentry in the Earth’s atmosphere that reached over 2500 degrees F (1400 degrees C) on the outside.

“While living and working aboard the world’s only orbiting laboratory, Whitson and Fischer contributed to hundreds of experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science, welcomed several cargo spacecraft delivering tons of supplies and research experiments, and conducted a combined six spacewalks to perform maintenance and upgrades to the station,” said NASA.

“Among their scientific exploits, Whitson and Fischer supported research into the physical changes to astronaut’s eyes caused by prolonged exposure to a microgravity environment. They also conducted a new lung tissue study that explored how stem cells work in the unique microgravity environment of the space station, which may pave the way for future stem cell research in space.”

“Additional research included an antibody investigation that could increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs for cancer treatment, and the study of plant physiology and growth in space using an advanced plant habitat. NASA also attached the Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass Investigation (ISS CREAM) on the outside of the space station in August, which is now observing cosmic rays coming from across the galaxy.”

Astronaut Peggy Whitson signs her autograph near an Expedition 50 mission patch attached to the inside the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

ISS Expedition 53 began at the moment of undocking from the space station, now under the command of veteran NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik since the official change of command ceremony on Friday.

Along with his crewmates Sergey Ryazanskiy of Roscosmos and Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency), the three-person crew will operate the station for the next 10 days until the imminent arrival of three new crew members.

The station will get back to a full complement of six crewmembers after the upcoming Sept. 12 launch and fast track 4 orbit 6 hour docking of NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba of NASA and Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos aboard the next Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft departing from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.

Meanwhile the next launch from the Kennedy Space Center is slated for this Thursday, Sept.7 is the SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying the USAF X-37B OTV-5 military mini-shuttle to low Earth orbit -detailed here.

Peggy Whitson set the record on Sept. 2, 2017, for most cumulative days living and working in space by a NASA astronaut at 665 days. Credit: NASA
Expedition 52 Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson of NASA, Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of the Russian space agency Roscosmos and Flight Engineer Jack Fischer of NASA float through the Harmony module of the International Space Station. Credits: NASA

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite X-37B OTV-5 and NASA mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Ken Kremer

Soyuz has split into 3 modules 139.8 km above Earth. Crew parachutes to landing inside Descent Module at 9:22 pm ET Sept. 2, 2017. Credit: NASA
Expedition 52 crew returns to Earth Sept. 2, 2017. Credit: NASA
Peggy Whitson @AstroPeggy is 3rd place all-time for cumulative spacewalk time with 10 spacewalks totaling 60 hours, 21 minutes. Credit: NASA