Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Soyuz Launch Brings I.S.S. to Full Crew Capacity
Once again Russia’s venerable space workhorse the Soyuz spacecraft proved that winter weather is not a launch concern as three new crew members blasted off from Kazakhstan on a mission to the International Space Station.
The impending arrival of NASA astronaut Don Pettit, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, and Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers, representing the European Space Agency brings the station back to a full crew of six, which will permit the astronauts to focus more on experiments. With only three crew members since the retirement of the space shuttle in July, most of the crew’s time was spent on station up keeping tasks.
The full crew of six will spend the Christmas and New Year’s holidays together in space, and a celebration is planned. After braving temperatures that plummeted well below zero degrees at the Baikonur Cosmodrone, the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft successfully launched at 8:16 a.m. ET. The trio is scheduled to dock at the I.S.S. on Friday morning for a five-month stay that will give them a ringside seat for the expected historic arrival of the first commercial cargo carrier, a SpaceX Dragon capsule which will launch from the Kennedy Space Center in February atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
They will be welcomed by the other members of Expedition 30, station commander Daniel Burbank of NASA and flight engineers Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin of Russia, who have already put up festive holiday decorations to mark the season.
Burbank discussed the planned holidays in space in a holiday greeting message, according to Space.com:
"We'll celebrate the holidays in great fashion after they get here," Burbank said of the new crew members. "We've already put up decorations, and we've gathered together all the cards and gifts that our friends and families have sent to us, and we're planning a couple of big meals. That'll be great."
Pettit, Kononenko and Kuipers, all veteran spacefliers who've been to the space station before, will also have their work cut out for them once they arrive at their new home away from home. In addition to wide-ranging scientific research projects, the crew members will spend their time keeping up the station and fixing anything that might break.
"If liquid's squirting out someplace, then it's like I'm a plumber for the day; if an electronics box isn't working right then you're an electrical repairman for the day," Pettit said during a press conference a few months before the launch. "You have to remember that the space station is so complicated, no one person could keep all the details in your mind. That's why we need all the folks on the ground."
The presence of six crew members onboard the station will allow each space flier to dig deep into research.
"I think I have something like 57 experiments from NASA, from ESA and also from [the Japanese space agency] JAXA," Kuipers said in a press conference earlier this year. "There's a whole bunch of experiments that I'm looking forward to, experiments in different fields — fluid physiology, fluid physics."
The Expedition 30 team is also scheduled to be in space for a milestone event. On Feb. 7, the first commercial spacecraft to visit the International Space Station is set to launch. The SpaceX Dragon capsule will be making its first cargo delivery run as part of a NASA program to encourage the development of private spacecraft to help fill the gap left by the retirement of the space shuttles this summer.
The unmanned Dragon is due to launch on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, and make an autonomous rendezvous with the space station. Once within reach, the crew inside the station will grab onto the freighter will the station's robotic arm and berth it on the lab.
"We've been practicing the dynamics of how you do that and we practice that a lot," Pettit said. "Once you get these docked to station, it's pretty much standard operations."
After about three months in space, the Expedition 30 mission will change over to Expedition 31, and Kononenko will take over command of the station.