Three new residents will launch to the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday, 14 October, bound for a six-month tour of duty aboard the sprawling orbital outpost. Veteran NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, who turns 42 tomorrow—and becomes only the fifth American and the first-ever woman to launch into space on a birthday—will ride the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft, shoulder-to-shoulder with Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Sergei Kud-Sverchkov. Theirs will mark the 100th launch of humans towards the ISS since STS-88, way back in December 1998.
Their launch atop a giant Soyuz-2.1a booster from Site 31/6 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is targeted for 11:45 a.m. local time (1:45 a.m. EDT) and is expected to produce the first-ever “super-fast” rendezvous by a crewed space vehicle, arriving and docking at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the station’s Rassvet module at 4:52 a.m. EDT.
Faster by far than the two-day ISS transits of yesteryear, and even faster than the six-hour and three-orbit approaches used by most Soyuz crews since March 2013, Rubins, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov will reach their home in the sky after only three hours and two circuits of the globe. These super-fast approaches were first trialed by Russia’s unpiloted Progress MS-09 cargo mission in July 2018, which reached the ISS three hours and 40 minutes after its Baikonur liftoff.
Since then, four more cargo ships—most recently Progress MS-15, which rose from Earth in July 2020—have followed similar profiles, achieving dockings as rapidly as only three hours and 19 minutes after launch. Assuming an on-time liftoff and arrival of Soyuz MS-17, this may produce an all-time record for any space station docking, bringing a crewed vehicle from the pad to the ISS in three hours and seven minutes.
But it promises to be a busy day for the three crew members. Together with their backups—Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov, teamed with NASA veteran Mark Vande Hei—they will be awakened in their quarters in Baikonur’s Cosmonaut Hotel around 8.5 hours before launch. They will shower and be disinfected, then will submit to medical tests, ceremonially autograph their hotel-room doors and receive a customary blessing from a Russian Orthodox priest. Next, they will be bussed out to Baikonur’s Site 254 to don their Sokol (“Falcon”) launch and entry suits and enjoy a final, behind-glass-screens chance to bid farewell to family and friends. Rubins, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov will then be driven directly to Site 31/6 to board Soyuz MS-17.
And Site 31/6 has seen relatively little use in recent years. Its most recent service to launch incumbent Expedition 63 crewmen Chris Cassidy, Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner on Soyuz MS-16 in April marked its first use since October 2016. The Soyuz-2.1a booster will also be flying for only its second time with humans aboard, having previously lofted Cassidy and his men in the spring. The new rocket carries the same RD-108A core-stage engine and the same RD-107A engines for its four tapering, strap-on boosters, but is characterized by enhanced flight controls and improved telemetry systems, compared to its previous incarnation, the Soyuz-FG, last used to launch a human crew in September 2019.
In spite of its “newness” as a human launcher, the Soyuz-2 has a long and chequered history as an unmanned vehicle, with around a hundred flights to its credit and a 97.7-percent success rate since October 2006. The 152-foot-tall (46.3-meter) booster was rolled out to Site 31/6 on Sunday, watched by backup crewmen Novitsky, Dubrov and Vande Hei. It is said to be unlucky for a prime crew to witness their own vehicle’s rollout to the pad.
Following tomorrow morning’s liftoff, Rubins, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov will dock at the Rassvet port at 4:52 a.m. EDT. This will be followed by standard pressurization and leak checks, after which hatches into the station will be opened and the new arrivals will be welcomed aboard by Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner. The two crews will work together for about a week, before Cassidy relinquishes command to Ryzhikov on the afternoon of 20 October, at which point Expedition 64 will formally commence.
Soyuz MS-16 is due to undock from its berth on the station’s space-facing (or “zenith”) Poisk module at 7:33 p.m. EDT on 21 October. Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner are due to land in Kazakhstan at 8:58 a.m. local time on the 22nd (10:58 p.m. EDT on the 21st), wrapping up Expedition 63 after a voyage of nearly 196 days.
Rubins, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov will inherit an ISS with four visiting vehicles in residence: their own Soyuz MS-17, the Russian Progress MS-14 and MS-15 cargo ships, launched in April and July, and Northrop Grumman Corp.’s NG-14 Cygnus, which arrived earlier this month. Soyuz MS-17 will also generate a record of its own, by becoming the 100th human spaceflight to launch towards the ISS (though only the 99th to actually reach the station) since the first Space Shuttle assembly mission, STS-88.
All told, between December 1998 and July 2011, no fewer than 37 shuttle crews visited, built, repaired and restocked the outpost. The recent flight of Dragon Endeavour astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken returned U.S. capability to deliver humans to the ISS last May. And counting tomorrow morning’s mission, a total of 62 crewed Soyuz spacecraft—inclusive of the ill-fated, high-altitude launch abort suffered by Soyuz MS-10 crewmen Alexei Ovchinin and Nick Hague in October 2018—will have launched from Earth with the explicit intention of visiting the ISS.
Expedition 64, under Ryzhikov’s command, is expected to become the first long-duration ISS increment to feature as many as seven crew members. Original plans called for Dragon Resilience to launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida in the wee hours of Halloween morning to deliver Crew-1 astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi to the ISS. However, a recent Falcon 9 mission—laden with a Block III Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and timing satellite for the U.S. Space Force—was scrubbed at T-2 seconds on 2 October, due to what SpaceX founder Elon Musk described as an “unexpected pressure rise in the turbomachinery gas generator”.
As such, last week, NASA and SpaceX announced that the Crew-1 launch was postponed until early-to-mid November at the soonest. It was noted that the delay affords “additional time for SpaceX to complete hardware testing and data reviews as the company evaluates off-nominal behavior of the Falcon 9 first-stage gas generators”. Dragon Resilience itself is proceeding well through its pre-launch processing, with the spacecraft secured to its unpressurized “trunk” on 2 October.
The seven-member crew of Expedition 64 are expected to welcome no fewer than seven visiting vehicles, including two flights (CRS-21 and 22) by SpaceX’s new Cargo Dragon in November and March—the first of which will carry NanoRacks’ Bishop commercial airlock uphill—plus a pair of Russian Progress cargo ships in the first quarter of 2021, Northrop Grumman’s NG-15 Cygnus in February, the long-awaited second test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner just after New Year and the crewed Soyuz MS-18 in early April. They will also bid farewell to the NG-14 Cygnus, the CRS-21 Cargo Dragon and Russia’s Progress MS-14 and MS-15 ships in the December-January.
Up to five sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) are planned, two by Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov in November and February, and as many as three other spacewalks by the U.S. Operational Segment (USOS) crew, beginning later this fall.
The Russian EVAs are tasked with preparing for the arrival of the new Nauka (“Science”) research lab and the planned disposal of the long-serving Pirs module, which has been an integral part of the space station since September 2001.
As such, it will become the first long-serving, permanent component of the ISS to be decommissioned and deorbited. Currently located on the nadir side of the Zvezda module, the departure of Pirs will open up a docking port for the targeted arrival of Nauka, possibly as early as late April of next year.
Although names have not been announced for who will perform the USOS EVAs, there will certainly be no shortage of experience, with Rubins and Hopkins having both performed two spacewalks apiece on their first missions and Noguchi having logged three during shuttle Discovery’s STS-114 Return to Flight (RTF) back in July 2005.
Key objectives include the installation of the Columbus Ka-Band Antenna (COL-Ka) and activation of the Bartolomeo payloads-anchoring platform on Europe’s Columbus lab—delivered to the station aboard SpaceX’s CRS-20 Dragon last March—together with the installation of a new lithium-ion battery on the P-4 truss segment, which blew a fuse last year.