Undocking Problems Delays Soyuz, Station Crew Return to Earth


Two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut were forced to call off their scheduled departure from the International Space Station because of a failure of the undocking system. Hooks on the space station’s Poisk module docking interface failed to release for the scheduled departure at 9:35 p.m. EDT Thursday, sending astronaut Tracy Caldwell-Dyson and Russia’s Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Kornienko back inside the ISS from the Soyuz, where they were strapped in, ready to return to Earth. NASA and the Russian Space Agency are hoping to try again, with the hatch closing at 6:45 pm EDT on Friday; undocking at 10:02 pm and landing in Kazakhstan at 1:22 am.

“The preliminary analysis, according to the technical commission, showed that a false signal appeared in the onboard computer system about the lack of a hermetic junction after closing the hatch on the station,” said Roscosmos head Anatoly Perminov.

This type of undocking problem has never happened before and comes three months after a Russian Progress resupply vehicle had problems docking to the ISS when a transmitter for the manual rendezvous system accidently activated, overriding the usually reliable automated system.

In trouble shooting the problem, Expedition 25 flight engineer Fyodor Yurchikhin on board the station removed a cover from the docking mechanism and found a small gear floating away. But the station crew couldn’t confirm the object came from the docking system or had anything to do with the failure.

100th Launch to the International Space Station

The Soyuz TMA-19 vehicle blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan today to bring three new crew members to the International Space Station. This was the 100th launch of missions in support of space station assembly, resupply and crew exchanges. The rocket lit up the early morning sky in Kazakhstan at 3:35 a.m. Wednesday local time, (5:35:19 p.m. EDT and 9:35 pm GMT on Tuesday). The Soyuz took eight and a half minutes to reach orbit, but it will take about 2 days to catch up to the ISS.
Continue reading “100th Launch to the International Space Station”

Unusual Views of the Soyuz Rocket


Two NASA astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut will launch to the International Space Station later today, and astronauts Douglas Wheelock has been able to get up close and personal with the Soyuz rocket that will take them there. He’s taken a few pictures of his rocket from unusual vantage points and posted them on Twitter, and is sharing his prelaunch experiences, too (@Astro_Wheels). Wheelock has big shoes to fill in the Twitter and picture-taking department, as JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi set a new standard in making his time on board the ISS a shared experience through images and social media. More pics below, plus a newly released video by NASA of the landing of the Soyuz that brought the Noguchi, Soyuz Commander Oleg Kotov and TJ Creamer back home. It’s a view of the landing not normally seen.

'The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die. T minus 42 hours...' Tweeted Wheelock.

For the next crew heading to the ISS, which will bring the crew size back to six at the space station, veteran cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, Wheelock and Shannon Walker are scheduled for liftoff aboard the Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:35:19 p.m. EDT (9:35 pm GMT) (3:35:19 a.m. June 16 local time Kazakhstan).

Including manned and unmanned missions, this will be the 100th launch supporting space station operations since assembly began in 1998.

NASA Extends Contract With Russia For Rides on the Soyuz

For those who are upset that NASA will be relying on (and paying) the Russian Federal Space Agency to ferry US astronauts to and from the International Space Station after the space shuttle is retired, there’s now more to be in a tizzy about. NASA has signed a $335 million modification to the current ISS contract, adding additional flights into 2014. The previous contract allowed for crew transportation, rescue and related services until 2013. The new extension raises the price of a seat on the Soyuz to $55.8 million, from the $26.3 million per astronaut NASA is paying now, and $51 million a seat for flights in 2011 and 2012.

From the NASA press release:

The firm-fixed price modification covers comprehensive Soyuz support, including all necessary training and preparation for launch, crew rescue, and landing of a long-duration mission for six individual
station crew members.

In this contract modification, space station crew members will launch on four Soyuz vehicles in 2013 and return on two vehicles in 2013 and two in 2014.

Under the contract modification, the Soyuz flights will carry limited cargo associated with crew transportation to and from the station, and disposal of trash. The cargo allowed per person is approximately 110 pounds (50 kilograms) launched to the station, approximately 37 pounds (17 kilograms) returned to Earth, and trash disposal of approximately 66 pounds (30 kilograms).

Source: NASA

Snowy Soyuz Touchdown!


In what was likely a softer –albeit colder — Soyuz landing than usual, ISS Expedition 22 astronaut Jeff Williams and cosmonaut Max Suraev landed their Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft on the snowy steppes of Kazakhstan Thursday, wrapping up a five-and-a-half-month stay aboard the International Space Station. The entire process of undocking and re-entry of the Soyuz was captured by the newest and hottest space photographer, Soichi Noguchi, (@Astro_Soichi) who has been sending down amazing Twitpics from space. See his very unique images below.

Suraev was at the controls of the spacecraft as it undocked at 8:03 GMT (4:03 a.m. EDT) from the station’s Poisk module. The duo landed at 11:24 GMT (7:24 a.m. EDT) at a site northeast of the Kazakh town of Arkalyk. The recovery teams had to work in frigid temperatures to help the crew exit the Soyuz and readjust to gravity, and then transport them to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, outside of Moscow.

Soyuz departing from the ISS. Credit: NASA/JAXA/Soichi Noguchi

“Fly safe my friends!” wrote @Astro_Soichi.

See all of Noguchi’s photos at his Twitpic page.

Russia May Raise Price of Soyuz Seats


Price gouging or simple laws of supply and demand? The Soyuz will soon be the only ride in town to the International Space Station, and reportedly, Russia is considering raising the price per seat. NASA and Roskosmos have an agreement for six rides to the ISS in 2012 and 2013, at a rate of about $51 million dollars per US astronaut. “We have an agreement until 2012 that Russia will be responsible for this,” Roskomos head Anatoly Perminov was quoted by the Interfax news agency. “But after that? Excuse me, but the prices should be absolutely different then!”

The end of the shuttle program means NASA has to buy rides on the Soyuz. The total deal of $306 million (224 million euros) seems to be a pretty good deal for Roskomos. But they say in order to provide seats for the NASA astronauts, they’ll have to quit their space tourism program, which charges only $35 million (28 million euros) per seat.

The $51 million includes training, equipment, medical checks, supplies, services for launch operations and support personnel to launch site, flight control operations, and rendezvous and docking services.

NASA says these services are “serving as a bridge between the Space Shuttle and the availability of a commercial vehicle. Until a commercial vehicle is available, continued access to Russian Crew launch, return, and rescue services is essential for planned ISS operations and utilization by all ISS partners.”

Soyuz Blasts off with International Crew to build out ISS

An international crew of three astronauts and cosmonauts blasted off Sunday (Dec 20) at 4:52 PM EST in a Russian capsule from the bone chilling Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, bound for the International Space Station (ISS). The crew aboard the Soyuz TMA-17 capsule comprises Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, NASA’s T.J. Creamer, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Following a two day pursuit they will rendezvous and link up with the ISS at the Zarya module’s nadir port on Tuesday at 5:58 p.m. EST about 220 miles over South America. Then they will officially join the Expedition 22 core crew of two, ISS Commander Jeff Williams (NASA) and flight engineer Max Suraev (Russia) thereby enlarging the orbiting outposts population to five, just one person shy of the full staffing of six.

Williams and Sureav have served as the sole occupants for the last three weeks since the scheduled Dec. 1 departure of the three man Expedition 21 crew. They arrived by Soyuz capsule TMA-16 in October.

Hatches between the ISS and Soyuz will be opened about 90 minutes after the Tuesday docking, which will be carried live on NASA TV. Kotov, Creamer and Noguchi are bringing along holiday goodies just in time to celebrate the arrival of Christmas and begin their 6 month stint in space.

The pre-dawn launch occurred precisely on time at 3:52 a.m. Monday local Kazakh time and was timed to coincide with the moment Earth’s rotation carried the launch pad into the plane of the space station’s orbit. The roaring stream of flames lit up the night sky for earth bound observers for miles around.

With Soyuz Commander Kotov occupying the center seat, the capsule separated from the third stage after the thunderous 9 minute climb to space. “Everyone feels great, no problems”, Kotov reported as the capsule was safely injected into an initial earth orbit. A live internal video feed showed the crew for most of the ride to orbit, working efficiently and in a relaxed manner. Engines will be fired three more times to raise the orbit and maneuver the capsule to match the stations orbit. On Tuesday the engines will be fired for a final time to align the Soyuz for docking.

The Expedition 22 crew of five have a busy agenda ahead filled with spacewalks, shuttle arrivals, relocating equipment, attachment of new modules and ambitious science experiments

Expedition 22 Soyuz Rollout. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Expedition 22 Soyuz Rollout. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

This was the first December lift off for a Soyuz since 1990 and took place in the frigid cold as the earthling observers shivered outside. The crew had been training in Baikonur for the last week and a half to complete final launch preparations.

The launch pad is the very same one used to support the historic launch of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961 on mankind’s first manned space flight. The Soyuz crew capsule has been in use by Russia since 1967.
Creamer is making his first space flight and is a distinguished Army aviator. This is Kotov’s 2nd flight to the ISS where he has already performed two spacewalks. Likewise it’s the 2nd flight for Noguchi, but his first on board a Soyuz. He was previously a member of the Shuttle Return to Flight crew in 2005. Three dozen Japanese journalists were on hand to document the mission, the first by a Japanese aboard a Soyuz.

Before today’s lift-off, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Administrator for NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations previewed the ‘year in space’ to come. “It’s an amazing time in spaceflight. We are bringing the station crew back up to five and learning how to operate with a larger crew size. For the systems to work right that requires a lot of preparation”.

“This will be an amazing year upcoming as I stand here in Kazakhstan with the Soyuz behind me. We have a shuttle almost ready to fly from KSC and this Soyuz set to fly. 2010 will be a busy year. We’ll have as many as 6 Progress, 4 Soyuz and 5 Shuttle flights to the ISS. The shuttle will start the year by bringing up the Tranquility and Cupola modules” (read our previous article for more info).

“We have built a phenomenal research station in space which could only have been assembled by the shuttle. But now it’s time to move beyond the shuttle. After the shuttle retires we will transition to smaller rockets like the Soyuz and the Dragon”.

ISS Temporarily Down to Crew of 2

Following today’s departure of the three man crew of Expedition 21 aboard the Soyuz TMA 15 capsule, staffing on the International Space Station (ISS) is now temporarily reduced to a skeleton crew of just 2 men for the first time since July 2006. The ISS had hosted a complete 6 person and truly international crew complement for the first time ever since its inception, starting in May of this year.

Soyuz Commander Roman Romanenko (Russia), European Space Agency Flight Engineer Frank De Winne (Belgium) and Canadian Space Agency Flight Engineer Bob Thirsk floated into their three segment Soyuz return capsule on Monday evening, Nov 30. After powering up systems and a farewell ceremony the hatches were closed at 7:43 PM EST. They disengaged hooks and latches and then physically undocked from the Zarya module at 10:56 PM over Mongolia after spending 188 days in space. De Winne was the first European commander of the ISS. All prior commanders have been either Russian or American. Romanenko is a second generation cosmonaut. His father Yuri, flew his first mission in 1980. Thirsk is the first long duration Canadian astronaut.

Soyuz TMA 15 landing track. Credit: NASA TV
Soyuz TMA 15 landing track. Credit: NASA TV

Retro rockets were fired for 4 min 19 sec at 1:26 AM Tuesday morning to initiate the de-orbit braking maneuver for the fiery plunge of atmospheric reentry. 19 minutes later the three Soyuz segments pyrotechnically separated at an altitude of 87 miles. The Soyuz barreled backwards as it hit the earth’s atmosphere at 400,000 ft above Africa and the crew experienced maximum G forces. The three parachuted to a safe touchdown strapped inside their Soyuz descent module onto the snowy steppes of Kazakhstan at 2:15 AM Tuesday Dec 1 (1:15 PM Kazakhstan local time) thereby concluding a mission that began with a May 27 blast off. Russian search and recovery forces drove to the ice cold landing zone at Arkalyk to greet and assist the trio in opening the hatch, exiting the craft, readapting to earth’s gravity and returning to Star City. This was the first December landing of a Soyuz since 1990.

Poor icy weather and low clouds grounded the normal recovery force of 8 helicopters. The capsule landed right on target and in an upright configuration. Recovery forces sped quickly into place. Romanenko was first to depart out the top hatch of the capsule, followed by Thirsk and De Winne. They were carefully extracted by the ground based recovery team and immediately assisted into stretchers while smiling broadly and waving to the crowd. Then they were swiftly slid into all terrain vehicles larger than their capsule for the initial leg of the ride back to Russia. Flight surgeons confirmed the health of the crew who are eager to re-unite with family and friends and earthly comforts.

The Expedition 22 core crew of NASA Commander Jeff Williams and Russian Flight Engineer Max Suraev remain as the sole two occupants for about three weeks until the Dec 23 arrival of the next international crew comprising Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, NASA’s T.J. Creamer, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency who head to the station Dec. 20 on the Soyuz TMA-17 craft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Williams and Suraev arrived by Soyuz capsule TMA -16 in October.

US astronaut Nicolle Stott rounded out the six person ISS crew until her departure just days ago on Nov 25 aboard shuttle Atlantis (link) left just five people on board. She spent 91 days aloft conducting science experiments and has the distinction of being the last ISS resident to hitch a ride up and down on a shuttle. Future crew rotations are planned via Russian Soyuz rockets since the shuttle will be retired by late 2010 and NASA’s Ares / Orion launch system won’t debut until 2015 or later.

Watch video of the shuttle “belly flip” as it arrives at the station.

During 7 days of joint operations in late November, the ISS boasted an ethnically diverse population of 12 humans from the combined crews of STS 129 Atlantis and the resident ISS members from two docked Soyuz capsules, just shy of the record 13 occupants. With all the comings and goings of assorted manned and robotic spaceships lately it’s been an exceptionally busy time that required careful planning and traffic coordination among the world’s space agencies.

The 800,000 pound station is now 86% complete and thus far larger and more complex compared to the last instance of a two person contingent. Since the 2005 Return to Flight of the shuttle following the Columbia accident, several habitable modules (Harmony, Columbus, Kibo, Poisk), truss segments, radiators, stowage platforms and giant solar arrays have been attached. All this has vastly expanded the astronauts and cosmonauts daily responsibilities of both maintaining station systems and carrying out a much expanded scientific research program.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s chief of space operations, said the ISS partners have carefully looked at the operational challenges of this three week interlude to make sure “there is not a lot of activity going on then, other than some software uploads. We moved all the major activities that were occurring to other periods when there will be more crew. We are prepared and ready to cut back a little on operations but still be able to do a little bit of science research with just two crew members on orbit.”

Three space walks by the Atlantis crew helped pave the way for the next shuttle ISS assembly flight in February 2010, designated STS 130, which will haul up the long awaited Tranquility and Cupola modules and which I recently observed close up at the ESA to NASA hand off ceremony inside the Space Station Processing Facility (link) (SSPF) at the Kennedy Space Center.

Atlantis delivered two large pallets loaded with 15 tons of critical spare parts that will help extend the working lifetime of the ISS and serve as a hedge against on orbit equipment failures ahead of the fast approaching deadline when the space shuttle is no longer available to loft such bulky gear.

Only 5 flights remain until the shuttle era ends late in 2010. The Orion capsule will not debut for at least five years and perhaps longer, dependent on funding decisions in Washington, DC. The station will then be completely dependent for supplies and equipment on Russian, European and Japanese cargo vehicles. Test flights of US commercial ISS transport vessels begin next year.

Not until another three person Soyuz blasts off next April 2010, will the station return to a full team of six. But science research will be full speed ahead.

Busy Space Station: 3 Soyuz Now Docked to ISS

The International Space Station is taking on the look and feel of a busy space way station, with three Soyuz now docked and a current crew count of nine. Expedition 21 Flight Engineers Jeff Williams and Maxim Suraev along with spaceflight participant Guy Laliberté arrived at the ISS, docking their Soyuz TMA-16 to the aft end of the Zvezda service module at 4:35 a.m. EDT Friday. Williams and Suraev are relieving Expedition 20 Commander Gennady Padalka and Flight Engineer Michael Barratt who will depart on Oct. 10 along with the Canadian visitor, Laliberté (the one with the clown nose, below). Watch the docking video below, along with another video of the hatch opening and the new crew members entering the station.

Soyuz Launch Video

The Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft launched today at 07:14 GMT (2:14 CDT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. On board were Soyuz Commander Max Suraev, NASA Flight Engineer Jeff Williams and spaceflight participant Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque du Soleil . They will arrive at the International Space Station on Friday.

If you’ve ever wondered about some of the unusual rituals the Russians partake in before a launch, an article on Discovery Space outlined the following traditions witnessed over the years by reporters for The Associated Press, or reported in the Russian media:

CARNATIONS FOR YURI: Before leaving for Baikonur, crew members lay red carnations at the monuments of the first Soviet cosmonauts in Star City outside Moscow and visit the office of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, and write their names in the visitors’ book.

ARRIVAL: Cosmonauts arrive in Baikonur on different planes and without their spouses. They check into the Kosmonaut hotel and walk down the alley where every tree was planted by cosmonauts who successfully returned from space.

MOVIE NIGHT: On the night before the launch, the cosmonauts watch “The White Sun of the Desert,” a 1969 comedy about a Russian soldier fighting in Central Asia.

MUSIC: Before leaving for the launch, the cosmonauts sip champagne and leave their signatures on the doors of their hotel rooms. Then they ride aboard a minibus to the launch pad listening to “Grass Near Home,” a 1983 hit of Soviet rock band The Earthlings.

BLESSING: After the Soviet era, black-robed Orthodox priests began to bless each rocket before launch.

SOAKING THE STAND-INS: 30 minutes before the launch, when the main crew is sealed in the spaceship, the cosmonaut’s stand-ins, who act as backup for the regular crew, are “soaked” by gulping vodka shots with journalists at a shabby cafeteria near the launch pad.

SOILING THE WHEEL: The cosmonauts get out of the bus near the rocket and urinate on its right rear wheel. The rite dates back to Gagarin himself, who reportedly did not want to soil his space suit during the takeoff.

MASCOT: A mascot, usually a stuffed animal named “Boris,” hangs in front of the crew. When the toy begins to float, the cosmonauts know they are approaching near zero gravity.

LANDING: After the landing in Kazakh steppe, the cosmonauts sign their capsule, which is charred by the heat of re-entry, and drink a bottle of vodka stashed before the launch. After a helicopter ride to Baikonur, they plant a tree near the Kosmonaut hotel.

RETURN TO MOSCOW: Upon their return to Star City outside Moscow, they pay a final visit to Gagarin’s monument and go to the church of St. Prince Daniil of Moscow, where they kiss the saint’s relics.

Source: Discovery Space