Crewed flights to ISS resume with Soyuz MS-11 launch
BAIKONUR COSMODROME, Kazakhstan — Normalcy is beginning to return to International Space Station operations as the crew of Soyuz MS-11 successfully launched and docked with the orbiting outpost—seven weeks after an in-flight abort thwarted plans of the previous human spaceflight.
Liftoff took place atop a Soyuz-FG rocket at 6:31 a.m. EST (11:31 GMT) Dec. 3, 2018, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Nine minutes later, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, NASA astronaut Anne McClain and Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques were in orbit to begin their four-orbit chase of the ISS.
It is the first flight for both 49-year-old Saint-Jacques and 39-year-old McClain and the fourth for 59-year-old Kononenko, who stayed a combined 533 days in space—mostly aboard the ISS—between three long-duration flights in 2008, 2011-2012 and 2015.
About six hours after leaving Kazakhstan, the trio should rendezvous with the ISS and autonomously docked to the space-facing Poisk module at 12:35 p.m. EST (17:35 GMT).
After Several hours of leak checks, the hatches between the space station and Soyuz are slated to open at 2:35 p.m. EST (19:35 GMT) where they will be welcomed by the Expedition 57 crew—European Space Agency astronaut and ISS Commander Alexander Gerst, NASA astronaut Serena Aunon-Chancellor and Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev who are already on board the orbiting lab.
Human spaceflight resumes
This was the first crewed flight of the Soyuz-FG rocket since the Oct. 11, 2018, flight of Soyuz MS-10, which aborted about two minutes after liftoff when an improper booster separation occurred, resulting in the breakup of the launcher.
Aboard the aborted Soyuz MS-10 were Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague, who had planned on being aboard the ISS for about six months. Instead, the rockets fairing abort motors had pulled the capsule and its two human occupants safely away from the vehicle. They never reached the threshold of space—defined as about 60 miles (100 kilometers)—before safely landing downrange in Kazakhstan about 20 minutes after leave Baikonur Cosmodrome.
An investigation found that a separation sensor was improperly installed on one of the four strap-on liquid-fueled boosters—collectively known as the first stage. This prevented it from falling away from the core stage—known as the second stage—before re-contacting the structure, causing the vehicle to fail.
Subsequent Soyuz rocket variants, including a Soyuz-FG with the Progress MS-10 space station resupply spacecraft in mid-November, showed that the vehicle was safe to fly humans.
This failure meant that—among other things—several spacewalks had to be postponed, including two to install lithium-ion batteries on the outpost’s exterior.
Moreover, the Soyuz MS-11 flight was moved forward by several weeks from its originally-planned Dec. 20 launch, while Gerst, Prokopyev and Aunon-Chancellor—who launched in June 2018 in their Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft—delayed their ISS departure from Dec. 13 to Dec. 20.
Additionally, since Hague and Ovchinin are not on board the outpost, they will not be part of Expedition 58, which will now only be a three-person crew for several months.
Interestingly, although not confirmed by NASA, Russian news outlet Interfax reported that Soyuz MS-12, which is expected to launch in March 2019, will include Ovchinin and Hague along with NASA astronaut Christina Hammock Koch.
Busy days ahead
In the mean time, the rest of 2018 is expected to be rather busy for the ISS. Less than 24 hours after Soyuz MS-11’s arrival at the ISS, SpaceX is set to launch its CRS-16 Dragon. The Dec. 4 launch is expected to occur in Florida at 1:38 p.m. EST (18:38 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40. Dragon should rendezvous and berth with the Earth-facing port of the station’s Harmony module two days later on Dec. 6.
After that, Kononenko and Prokopyev are set to perform a relatively short spacewalk—Russian EVA-45a—on Dec. 11. It is expected to include a variety of tasks, including an inspection of the exterior hull of Soyuz MS-09, which was found to have a small hole in the spacecraft’s Orbital Module back in August.
This hole was discovered after a slight pressure drop was noticed by NASA’s Mission Control in Houston on Aug. 29. Once found, it was quickly sealed with an epoxy resin, which has since held. An investigation in Russia found the hole was likely caused on the ground and subsequent spacecraft have been checked for similar manufacturing defects.
Finally, on Dec. 20, Soyuz MS-09 with Prokopyev, Gerst and Aunon-Chancellor will undock and land. According to NASA, Expedition 58 will officially begin.
Kononenko, Saint-Jacques and McClain are expected to remain aboard the ISS until June 2019. Kononenko is expected to be the commander for the duration of their six-month mission, which is set to conduct or continue work on hundreds of experiments in areas ranging from biology, biotechnology, physical science and more, according to NASA.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.