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

One of three Soyuz docked to ISS. Credit: NASA

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

Soyuz launch on Sept. 30. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

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

Spectacular Soyuz Rollout Images

Russian security officers walk along the railroad tracks as the Soyuz rocket is rolled out to the launch pad Monday, Sept. 28, 2009 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Soyuz is scheduled to launch the crew of Expedition 21 and a spaceflight participant on Sept. 30, 2009. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

NASA photographer Bill Ingalls is in Russia at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, capturing the rollout of the Soyuz TMA-16 rocket today, scheduled to launch on Sept. 30 to the International Space Station. Of course the Soyuz rollout and launch is a whole different experience from the shuttle rollout, and these pictures tell the story. Additionally, this launch has a bit more “festive” feel to it: spaceflight participant Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque du Soleil, is part of the crew. Also on board, Soyuz Commander Max Suraev, and NASA Flight Engineer Jeff Williams are scheduled to launch at 2:14 a.m. CDT on Wednesday, Sept. 30.

Above, a Russian security officers walk along the railroad tracks as the Soyuz rocket is rolled out to the launch pad.

The Soyuz rocket is seen shortly after arrival to the launch pad Monday, Sept. 28, 2009.  Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The Soyuz rocket is seen shortly after arrival to the launch pad Monday, Sept. 28, 2009. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The Soyuz rocket being hoisted to its launch position shortly after arrival to the launch pad Monday.

Laliberte is paying some $35 million for a seat on the Soyuz and 12 days aboard the ISS. He’s likely to be the last paying private citizen to the station for the next few years. Because of the retirement of the space shuttle, the Soyuz will be the only way to get astronauts and cosmonauts to and from the ISS.

Launch scaffolding is raised into place around the Soyuz rocket.  Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Launch scaffolding is raised into place around the Soyuz rocket. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
It will take the Soyuz two days to reach the ISS. Docking is scheduled for 3:36 a.m. CDT on Friday, Oct. 2. Waiting on board the orbiting laboratory are commander Gennady Padalka, NASA’s Mike Barratt and Nicole Stott, the European Space Agency’s Frank De Winne, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and the Canadian Space Agency’s Bob Thirsk. After Padalka and Barratt depart the station, De Winne will become commander of the next station mission, designated Expedition 21.

The sun rises behind the Soyuz launch pad shortly before the Soyuz rocket is rolled out.  Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The sun rises behind the Soyuz launch pad shortly before the Soyuz rocket is rolled out. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Padalka, Barratt and Laliberte will return to Earth on Saturday, Oct. 10, in the Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft currently docked to the station. Padalka and Barratt have been on the ISS since March 2009.

To see more images from the Soyuz rollout, check out NASA’s Flickr page.