Wednesday, July 22, 2015

International crew launches on delayed space station mission

An international crew of three lifted off from Kazakhstan on Thursday  beginning a delayed five-month voyage of living and working aboard the International Space Station.

Time lapsed image of Soyuz July 22 launch. (NASA)
Russian Soyuz TMA-17M commander Oleg Kononenko, NASA astronaut Kjell N. Lindgren and Japan's Kimiya Yui launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at the precise second launch site 1 was in alignment with the space station's orbit 250 miles above. The Russian-built Soyuz FG rocket engines ignited on time at 5:02:44 p.m. EDT (3:02 a.m. on Thursday, local time), illuminating the night as the rocket climbed a trail of fire and smoke over Kazakhstan.

This crew's mission was delayed two months in the wake of an ill-fated Soyuz launch with an uncrewed Progress M-27M station resupply craft on April 28. The Russian Space Agency ordered both an investigation into the launch mishap and grounded future station crews.

The Soyuz rocket is very similar to the crewed FG version giving the space community reason to delay upcoming launches. Following the successful July 3 Soyuz launch with Progress M-28M, Russia announced the go-ahead for the launch of the Expedition 44/45 crew. Russia has yet to disclose the exact cause of why the Progress lost communications with ground controllers and began spinning at a high rate following its separation from Soyuz upper stage.

As the Soyuz rocket pierced the dark sky its 930,000 pounds of thrust and flame gave spectators at the launch site a bright six point star. Meanwhile, inside the Soyuz, the crew watched a stuffed Star Wars R2D2 tethered to the craft's ceiling and used as a gravity meter.

Nine minutes later, the Soyuz separated from the rocket's third stage and began unfurling its twin solar arrays and deploy a communications antenna. One array deployed on time, however a second array did not deploy due to an unknown issue. Moscow's Mission Control radioed the crew of the stuck solar array and to proceed with docking.

As Soyuz arrived on orbit, the space station was 2,243 miles ahead of the spacecraft. The newly arrived crew began opening their visors and preparing Soyuz for docking.

The TMA-17M crew launched on a nearly six-hour fast track to the orbiting laboratory. The Soyuz is scheduled to slowly glide in and dock to the station's Rassvet module at 10:46 p.m. Ninety minutes later, crew members will ensure the connections between the Soyuz and the docking adapter are at proper air pressure and open duo hatches on either side.

This flight marks Lindgren and Yui first trip into space, and the third voyage to the space station for Kononenko who has logged 391 days in space. The new crew will join cosmonaut and station commander Gennady Padalka -- who holds the record for the most time in space by a human at 827 days and counting -- and the Year in Space duo of American Scott Kelly and Russian Mikhail Kornienko.
Soyuz crew members during lift-off. (ROSCOSMOS)

Lindgren, a medical doctor who was selected into the NASA astronaut corps in 2009, was born in Taiwan. His family moved to England and finally settled in the United States during high school. He joined the Air Force, soaring with the USAF Wings of Blue parachute team and attended colleges in Colorado.

"For as long as I can remember I've wanted to be an astronaut," Lindgren said. "I had this dream of becoming an astronaut, and I understood that the Air Force Academy was a good way to do that. And, so I decided that that's where I wanted to go that was my top choice and had the great fortune to be accepted there."

Yui, who also became an astronaut in the same year, piloted F-15 Eagle fighter jets as a member of Japan's Air Self-Defense Force. He served as an aquanaut during NASA's NEEMO 16 in 2012 inside the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory located 19 meters below the ocean's surface off Key Largo, Florida.

Kononenko, a civilian pilot and engineer who occupied the craft's center seat during launch, is beginning his third expedition aboard orbital outpost. In 2008 and 2012, the married father of two performed spacewalks outside the station.

Kononenko dreamt of "designing a space vehicle and then flying it. However it's hard to combine the two professions in real life," he said recently. "You can be a great designer and engineer or a cosmonaut -- I chose to be a cosmonaut."

The newly launched trio will follow into a new routine of science experiments, and taking and recording their own biological samples to be returned to Earth on a future spacecraft. "The ongoing collection of biological samples from crew members help scientists determine if immune system impairment caused by spaceflight increases the possibility for infection or poses a significant health risk during life aboard the space station," NASA spokesperson Mark Garcia said on Wednesday.

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