Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Going Back to Space: Riding with Russians

Russian Soyuz TMA-04M mission blasts off.

On Monday night the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome reverberated with the roar of the Soyuz rocket blasting off to the ISS. On board mission TMA-04M was the second part of the Expedition 31 crew: Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin, with NASA astronaut Joe Acaba. The liftoff was performed successfully and the Soyuz capsule is now in orbit on course for docking with the International Space Station on Thursday.

Flying with Joe Acaba is a Smokey the Bear stuffed toy. Credit: U.S. Forest Service.

With the end of the Space Transportation System (STS) or Shuttle program, NASA relies on the Russian space agency to transport our astronauts back and forth from the ISS. With America's further reliance on the venerable Soyuz rocket system, the Russian government and space agency are seeking greater control over the ISS and the activities there. In addition, the Russians did not fail to grasp at a business opportunity: the cost of a seat on the Soyuz for the Americans jumped by at least 40%.

Astronaut Joe Acaba rides the Soyuz to low Earth orbit.

The Soyuz rocket has been a staple of the Russian space program for several decades. With its first unmanned flight in 1966, both the Soyuz spacecraft and the Soyuz rocket have become an icon of the Russian space effort. Like the shuttle, it has not been without its failures. The first cosmonaut on Soyuz 1, and the three-man crew of Soyuz 11, died during re-entry accidents. However, with the vast number of Soyuz flights succeeding, the Soyuz has become the safest space transportation system. It is also one of the most cost-effective. Because it has been built so many times, the cost has been managed to low levels, an achievement admired by many Americans.

Soyuz TMA-06 in orbit.

Russia currently flies a three-person crew on the Soyuz, and astronauts and other nation cosmonauts must train at the Russian space agency and learn the Russian language to participate in flights. An additional Soyuz spacecraft is kept at the ISS as an emergency escape craft. Russia has also built a cargo version of the capsule. The unmanned cargo version is called the Progress, the manned versions are the current TMA designation. This current manned version was revised from the earlier TM version when it was realized that taller astronauts would need extra room on the Soyuz. The TMA version has been flying since 2003.

Progress M-52, unmanned cargo version. Once supplies are emptied from the Progress aboard the ISS, space station garbage and unwanted equipment is stored aboard. When it undocks, ground controllers guide it to a fiery re-entry, burning it up over an ocean.

Over the last couple of years there have been some anxious moments between NASA and Russia as there have been some glitches and landing difficulties with the Soyuz spacecraft and other Russian rockets. While those problems are fixed, many Americans feel the Soyuz system is old. Even the Russians must be feeling the age of the design, as they have proposed a new design called the Prospective Piloted Transport System, which will carry up to six occupants.

Overall though, NASA is resigned to carry on our human space program at present by using whatever ride the Russians can provide. Right now there is no alternative. And perhaps that's what bugs Americans the most. With proper planning, we should have had a replacement by now.

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