Soyuz MS-04 arrival increases ISS crew size to 5
The population of the International Space Station has increased to five people with the docking and hatch opening of the Soyuz MS-04 with two new Expedition 51 crew members.
Soyuz MS-04 launched at 3:13 a.m. EDT (07:13 GMT) April 20, 2017, from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Soyuz-FG rocket. Four orbits later, the spacecraft rendezvoused and docked with the outpost’s Poisk module. Contact with the station was confirmed at 9:18 a.m. EDT (13:18 GMT). This was the first Soyuz MS-series spacecraft to utilize the shorter rendezvous rather than the longer 34-orbit, two-day approach.
This was also the first crewed launch since the failure of Progress MS-04 in December 2016. During powered flight of the upper stage for that launch, the RD-0110 engine’s oxidizer pump failed. This caused the whole assembly to disintegrate about 22 seconds before reaching orbit.
Since then, Roscosmos successfully launched Progress MS-05 in February 2017, showing that the issues with that launch were fixed. Moreover, extra care was taken with this mission as this rocket, as with all Progress and Soyuz missions, share an engine commonality. According to NASA Spaceflight, the engine for this rocket’s upper stage was swapped out and replaced with an engine that was not produced alongside the one that failed in the December failure.
For the Soyuz MS-04 flight, everything went by the book. After about two hours of leak checks, the hatches between the two craft were opened at 11:25 a.m. EDT (15:25 GMT). The two-man crew of Soyuz MS-04 – NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin – then joined already-aboard NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet, and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy. Together, they form the full Expedition 51 with Whitson as commander.
After coming aboard, the full crew went into the Zvezda module to have a post-docking conference with friends and family members on the ground.
“We’re sending you the warmest, kindest congratulations on the successful launch and successful docking,” said Fyodor’s wife, Larisa Yurchikhina. “We can see you and we are overfilled with feelings and emotions. Of course, it cannot be compared to what you were going through at launch.”
Yurchikhin told his wife that he loved her and sends his “hugs and kisses” to his two daughters as well. Yurchikhin’s family congratulated Fischer as well.
Next up was Fischer’s family, which included his wife Elizabeth Fischer, two daughters, and parents.
“It looks like you had a good trip,” Elizabeth Fischer said. “I hope you were able to look out the window and see it took you less time than it’ll take us to get back to Texas. So I hope you were able to go around the Earth four times and enjoy it.”
Elizabeth Fischer said he got the “most unexpected bouquet of flowers ever” from Jack Fischer right before he left for his mission. She thanked him and said she already misses him.
“Well, I learned from the master,” Jack Fischer said, referring to Yurchikhin. “Fyodor told me that I should be doing that so I got some flowers. [My view of Earth] a burrito of awesomeness smothered in awesome sauce, baby. It’s so beautiful.”
Fischer’s mother talked to him next. She said she was so glad he was up there. She said she was proud of him and will miss him.
“We’ll Mom, it’s like me being in Texas,” Fischer said. “Depending on where we are going around the Earth, I’ll be just as close. And I can still call you, so no need to miss me. Love you, Mom.”
At the conclusion of the conference, the crew underwent a tour and safety briefing before settling into their new home for the next five months.
Yurchikhin, 58, has flown on both Space Shuttle and Soyuz missions. This is his fifth flight and fourth long-duration expedition. Up until this mission, he had spent more than 537 days in orbit. His first flight occurred in 2002 aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis’ STS-112 construction flight to the ISS.
Forty-three-year-old Fischer, on the other hand, is on his first spaceflight. He was selected in 2009 to be part of NASA’s 20th group of astronauts, nicknamed “The Chumps”. He, along with the rest of his class, finished training and was allowed to be assigned for flights in November 2011. He will be the seventh member of the 14-member group to fly, which includes five international astronauts.
Reduced crew size
Normally, Soyuz spacecraft bring three people to the outpost. However, in 2016, Roscosmos, the Russian state corporation that runs the country’s space program, stated that it would be reducing its crew size from three on full expeditions to two. This meant that on a flight where two Russians would normally fly alongside a single American astronaut to fly to the ISS, it only had one cosmonaut.
The crew reduction was done in a bid to reduce the number of yearly Progress cargo ships servicing the station from four to three. In turn, it is hoped this will help save money to put toward readying the decade-delayed Nauka science module for launch. The launch is currently expected sometime in 2018 at the earliest.
Once Nauka is firmly attached to the outpost, replacing the aging Pirs docking module, Russia will increase its crew size back to three. Until then, through a deal involving Boeing, NASA will be sending an extra U.S. astronaut in place of the second Russian on the reduced-crewed Soyuz flights. The next one will be Soyuz MS-06 in September 2017. It will mark the second time more Americans will launch aboard a Soyuz than Russians. The first occurred aboard Soyuz TMA-19 in June 2010.
The Boeing deal will allow the crew to remain at six people after Soyuz MS-05 launches in late July.
Moreover, because Soyuz MS-03, which launched Whitson, Pesquet, and Novitskiy in November 2016 – will be leaving in early June 2017, the crew size was expected to reduce to a post-shuttle era low of two. Not since Expedition 13 in 2006 has the crew complement been that low.
To prevent that, NASA worked out a deal with Roscosmos to allow Whitson, who is already on a record-breaking mission, to remain at the outpost for an additional three months to return home in the empty seat on Soyuz MS-04.
Over the course of the Expedition 51/52 flight, the crew will see a number of dockings, berthings, and spacewalks starting just 45 hours after docking.
On April 22, Orbital ATK’s “S.S. John Glenn” OA-7 Cygnus spacecraft, which launched on April 18, will rendezvous with the outpost. It will be captured using the robotic Canadarm2 and berthed with the Earth-facing port of the Unity module.
Then, on May 12, 2017, Whitson and Fischer will venture outside the outpost on Extravehicular Activity (EVA) 42 to do some maintenance work on the station.
At the end of May, SpaceX is expected to launch its CRS-11 Dragon capsule. It will rendezvous a couple days later to be captured and berthed to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module.
Dragon’s arrival will happen just a day after the departure of the Soyuz MS-03 crew with Pesquet and Novitskiy, should the schedule hold. CRS-11 will remain at the outpost until early July. The OA-7 Cygnus, after being attached to the outpost for three months, will also leave in early July.
On June 13, 2017, Progress MS-05, which has been parked at the Pirs module since February 2017, will undock and burn up in the atmosphere a week later. A day after undocking, Progress MS-06 will launch from Baikonur and dock to Pirs about six hours later.
After the Soyuz MS-05 crew launches with Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky, ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli, and NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik, SpaceX is expected to launch the CRS-12 Dragon sometime in August.
Also in August, Russian EVA-43 is expected to take place with Yurchikhin and Ryazansky venturing outside the Pirs airlock to do maintenance on the Russian orbital segment of the ISS.
Video courtesy of NASA
Derek Richardson is a student studying mass media with an emphasis in contemporary journalism at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. He is currently the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also writes a blog, called Orbital Velocity, about the space station. His passion for space ignited when he watched space shuttle Discovery leap to space on Oct. 29, 1998. He saw his first in-person launch on July 8, 2011 when the space shuttle launched for the final time. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized that his true calling was communicating to others about space exploration and spreading that passion.