Only days before their scheduled 13-14 May return to Earth, it is understood that Soyuz TMA-15M crew members—and the “core” of the incumbent Expedition 43—are expected to remain aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for a further four weeks. It was reported by the website Novosti Kosmonavtiki on Saturday, 9 May, that U.S. astronaut Terry Virts, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, and Italy’s first woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti, will conclude their mission of 199-201 days at some stage between 11-13 June. This will establish Cristoforetti as the most flight-experienced Italian spacefarer of all time, eclipsing the current record-holder, Paolo Nespoli, and position her as the holder of the single longest space mission ever undertaken by a woman. In so doing, she will surpass U.S. astronaut and long-duration heavyweight Suni Williams, whose Expedition 14/15 flight ran for almost 195 days between December 2006 and June 2007.
The consequence of the schedule slippage is a domino-like effect upon ISS planning for the remainder of the year, with the upcoming Soyuz TMA-17M launch postponed from 26 May until the second half of July and the first in a series of ambitious U.S. EVAs to reconfigure the space station pushed into August. The cause appears to be rooted in ongoing investigations into the role of the Soyuz-2 booster’s upper stage in the recent Progress M-27M failure and its implications for the Soyuz TMA-17M crew, who will ride a vehicle derived from the same rocket “family.”
For Virts, Shkaplerov, and Cristoforetti, the announcement that their return to Earth has been postponed by more than a month must have brought mixed feelings of disappointment and euphoria, as the opportunity to spend more time in space is juxtaposed by a lengthy delay before they can reunite with their families and friends. Launched in November 2014, the trio initially formed the second half of Expedition 42, under the command of U.S. astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, and over the following weeks and months conducted a wide range of research experiments and supported three ambitious EVAs, totaling more than 19 hours, to lay power and data cables in support of the Common Communications for Visiting Vehicles (C2V2) architecture, outfitting Common Berthing Mechanisms (CBMs) aboard the Tranquility node and lubricating the “sticky” Latching End Effector (LEE) on the Canadarm2 robotic arm. With the return to Earth of Wilmore and his Soyuz TMA-14M crewmates—Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev and Yelena Serova—on 10/11 March, Virts assumed command of Expedition 43, with the expectation that he would retain this position through mid-May and his own crew’s journey home.
In the meantime, on 26/27 March, Soyuz TMA-16M and its human freight of Russian cosmonaut Gennadi Padalka and One-Year crew members Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko restored Expedition 43 to six-person strength and wasted little time before plunging into a full workload of scientific and biomedical research. As expected, the highlight of the first half of April was the arrival of the CRS-6 Dragon cargo ship—the latest in a series of unpiloted vehicles, flying under a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract, signed between NASA and SpaceX back in December 2008—which delivered 4,390 pounds (1,990 kg) of payloads, provisions, equipment, and supplies to the crew.
However, the apparent smoothness of the final weeks of Expedition 43 and the opening weeks of the long-duration occupancy of Padalka, Kelly, and Kornienko was hampered in late-April by the highly publicized failure of Russia’s Progress M-27M cargo ship. Launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on the 28th, it was expected that the Progress—which represented the latest in a long line of unpiloted cargo vessels that have supported the Soviet Union’s Salyut 6 and Salyut 7 orbital stations, Russia’s Mir, and the multi-national ISS, since January 1978—would follow a six-hour, four-orbit “fast rendezvous” profile, ahead of an automated docking at the Pirs module.
Although Progress M-27M achieved low-Earth orbit, it appeared to suffer from a malfunction toward the end of the Soyuz-2’s upper stage “burn,” just prior to spacecraft separation, which caused a rotational spin and generated a large debris field, totaling as many as 44 discrete objects at one point. Intermittent communications provided flight controllers with limited telemetry, which indicated that the spacecraft—also designated “Progress 59P,” the 61st of its kind to head toward the ISS since Progress M1-3 back in August 2000—had satisfactorily deployed its electricity-generating solar arrays, but no confirmation that its Kurs (“Course”) rendezvous antennas had unfurled. In keeping with procedures which are common to both unpiloted Progress and crewed Soyuz flights, the six-hour fast rendezvous profile was abandoned in favor of a standard two-day approach regime.
However, this quickly proved untenable, in view of the shaky communications and no success in efforts to overcome Progress M-27M’s uncontrollable spin. By 29 April, Roscosmos reported that the spacecraft was effectively lost, having sustained multiple systems failures and depressurized propellant lines, and that it would likely re-enter Earth’s atmosphere to destruction at some stage between 7-11 May. At length, the spacecraft and its 5,200-pound (2,360-kg) load of food, water, fuel, supplies, and experiments for the Expedition 43 crew re-entered the atmosphere in the small hours of 8 May, burning up over a sparse region of the Pacific Ocean, between 560-2,000 miles (350-1,300 km) off the west coast of Chile. It was a sad end to the 150th Progress flight and only the second outright mission failure in the program’s chequered, 37-year history. Back in August 2011, the booster delivering Progress M-12M to orbit suffered a catastrophic engine failure and the spacecraft was lost over the Altai Republic.
Although neither NASA or the European Space Agency (ESA) have yet confirmed the month-long extension to Expedition 43, Novosti Kosmonavtiki has noted that the crew’s return to Earth had been “delayed for several weeks, according to sources as the Italian Space Agency.” A return to Earth in the 11-13 June timeframe will conclude a mission of around 199-201 days for Shkaplerov, Virts, and Cristoforetti, making theirs the second-longest ISS expedition in history, surpassed only by the 215-day accomplishment of Expedition 14 crewmen Mike Lopez-Alegria of NASA and Mikhail Tyurin of Russia between September 2006-April 2007.
Landing within this period will wrap up Shkaplerov’s second long-duration ISS expedition, as he totals 364-366 days in orbit and positions himself in 31st or 32nd place on the list of the world’s most seasoned space travelers. Counting Expedition 42/43 and his previous shuttle mission, STS-130, back in February 2010, Virts will amass 213-215 days and become the 14th most experienced U.S. astronaut. Meanwhile, Cristoforetti—wrapping up her first mission—will become the most experienced Italian spacefarer, surpassing the current incumbent, Paolo Nespoli, who has accrued 174 days across two flights. Cristoforetti will also exceed Russian cosmonaut Yelena Kondakova, whose total stands at 178 days, to establish herself as the most experienced non-U.S. female spacefarer of all time. She will also pass U.S. astronaut Suni Williams, by concluding the longest single mission ever undertaken by a woman.
According to Novosti Kosmonavtiki, another booster from the Soyuz family was targeted to deliver the Kobalt-M reconnaissance satellite from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, within Russia’s far-northern Arkhangelsk Oblast, on 15 May, but is likely to meet with delay until the investigation into the cause of the Progress M-27M failure reaches its conclusion. Since all of the boosters—and that of the forthcoming Soyuz TMA-17M piloted mission—originate from the same heritage, Russia’s prudent response to the incident is understandable.
If confirmed, this is not the first occasion in the ISS era that the launch of a piloted mission has been delayed, as a consequence of a Soyuz-class booster failure. On 24 August 2011, the ISS-bound Progress M-12M cargo ship was lost over the Altai Republic, less than six minutes after launch, when a blocked fuel duct caused the RD-0110 engine of its Soyuz-U rocket’s third stage to shut down prematurely. Another Soyuz launch, carrying a GLONASS navigation satellite on behalf of the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces, was postponed in the wake of the accident, and the next piloted mission—Soyuz TMA-22, carrying Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoli Ivanishin, together with U.S. astronaut Dan Burbank—was delayed from 30 September until 14 November.
With Expedition 43 in effect through the first half of June, the activities of the coming weeks and months aboard the ISS will likely be reprioritized. As described in an AmericaSpace article earlier this year, 2015 is critical for NASA, as it seeks to undertake a major reconfiguration of the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS), in readiness for Commercial Crew operations in 2017. Specifically, a pair of International Docking Adapters (IDAs) for eventual use by SpaceX’s Dragon V-2 and Boeing’s CST-100 piloted capsules are scheduled to be delivered to the ISS aboard the CRS-7 and CRS-9 Dragon cargo missions in June and December. These IDAs will be installed onto the forward and space-facing (or “zenith”) ports of the Harmony node.
However, the Harmony zenith interface was previously utilized as a berthing location for unpiloted visiting vehicles, including SpaceX’s Dragon, Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV). Since the USOS requires the availability of two docking ports for piloted visitors and two berthing locations for unpiloted visitors, a “new” berthing location thus had to be created. As a result, the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) location on the Unity node—which is presently occupied by the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM)—will be reconfigured to serve this purpose. Original plans called for the Leonardo PMM to robotically detached from the Unity nadir interface in June and transferred to a new location at the forward port of the Tranquility node, after which Expedition 44 crew members Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren would perform U.S. EVA-32 in early July to install and outfit IDA-1 at the forward end of the Harmony node.
According to Novosti Kosmonavtiki, it seems likely that the launch of Soyuz TMA-17M—whose three-member crew includes Lindgren—will slip until the second half of July, thereby pushing EVA-32 later into the summer months. Having said this, it would appear that the other key dates for 2015 remain unaffected at present, with the CRS-7 Dragon carrying IDA-1 still targeted for launch on 19 June and the Soyuz TMA-18M piloted mission with Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, Denmark’s first astronaut Andreas Mogensen, and English soprano Sarah Brightman retaining their original scheduled launch date of 1 September. One possible change is that Russia may advance the launch of the Progress M-28M cargo ship from August to the beginning of July, although this remains entirely dependent upon the outcome of the ongoing investigation.