Soyuz MS-12 Arrives at ISS; NASA and Roscosmos Confirm Future Mixed Crews on Soyuz and U.S. Commercial Crew Systems

Soyuz MS-12 Arrives at ISS; NASA and Roscosmos Confirm Future Mixed Crews on Soyuz and U.S. Commercial Crew Systems

NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) today, five months later than planned.  Along with NASA astronaut Christina Koch, their Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft docked at ISS at 9:01 pm ET approximately 6 hours after lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.  The uneventful trip was quite unlike their first launch on October 11 which ended abruptly after a launch failure.  After they docked, NASA and Roscosmos officials confirmed that mixed U.S.-Russian crews will continue to fly on Soyuz and on the new U.S. commercial crew systems once they are operational.  In addition, Koch will remain on ISS longer than originally planned. [Update: On April 17, NASA announced that Koch will remain until February 2020 and set a new record for longest duration on a single spaceflight for a woman.]

Hague and Ovchinin were supposed to fly to ISS on Soyuz MS-10, but their Soyuz rocket disintegrated about 2 minutes after launch when one of the strap-on rockets did not separate correctly and hit the core stage.  Automated systems instantly separated the crew capsule and boosted it to a high altitude from which it then made a safe descent not unlike a typical reentry from orbit.  The two crew members were quickly rescued by a team that is routinely pre-positioned along the flight path for just such an eventuality.  Unharmed, they flew back to Baikonur where they were reunited with their families and officials from NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, who had just seen them off.

Roscosmos quickly determined that due to human error a separator sensor pin had been bent by 6°45′ when the boosters were mated to the core vehicle at Baikonur.  Consequently the lid of the nozzle intended to separate the booster did not open.

Hague and Ovchinin appeared to take it all in stride, and were promised another chance. They got it today.  Launch took place on time at 3:14 pm ET.

They and Koch joined three ISS crew members already aboard:  NASA’s Anne McClain, Canada’s David Saint-Jacques, and Russia’s Oleg Kononenko.  The hatch between Soyuz MS-12 and ISS was opened at 11:09 pm ET and the now six-person ISS crew held a teleconference a few minutes later with family and friends back at the launch site.

ISS crew after arrival of Soyuz MS-12, March 14, 2019. Front row, L-R: Nick Hague, Aleksey Ovchinin, Christina Koch. Back row, L-R: Anne McClain, Oleg Kononenko, David Saint-Jacques.  Screengrab from NASA TV.

NASA and Roscosmos have had to replan the ISS crew rotations because of the Soyuz MS-10 failure.  Koch, who was already scheduled to launch this spring, was assigned to this crew instead.  Because NASA’s contract with Roscosmos for crew transportation services to and from ISS is coming to an end, the seats NASA has been buying are now available for Roscosmos is sell to other customers.  It has a contract to launch an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this year.

Although NASA issued a press release this afternoon stating that Koch, Hague and Ovchinin would return to Earth together this fall, at a press conference after they docked, it was announced that Koch’s mission will be extended so Russia can accommodate the UAE flight.

Dmitry Rogozin, General Director, Roscosmos, speaking at a press conference following the docking of Soyuz MS-12 to the ISS, March 14, 2019.  Screengrab from NASA TV.

At the press conference, Bill Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, and Dmitry Rogozin, General Director of Roscosmos, also confirmed that once the new U.S. commercial crew systems are operational, NASA astronauts will continue to fly on Soyuz, and Russian cosmonauts will fly on the U.S. systems.

According to the translator on NASA TV, Rogozin said it “will assure safety and effective flight. We will continue … sharing our vehicles and the crews will continue to be mixed crews going up to station. I think this is important to maintain not only an image of cooperation, but to actually be continuing our close collaboration because spaceflight can only  happen with joint effort with a unified crew.  This is really important.”

Rogozin also tweeted the news.

Gerstenmaier told a congressional committee last year that such an agreement was in the works.  He said it was for safety reasons because a minimum of one American and one Russian is needed to operate the U.S. and Russian segments of the ISS respectively and in an emergency they would return to Earth on whatever spacecraft took them to the ISS.  He indicated the flights will be on a no-exchange-of-funds basis.

Meanwhile, the Soyuz MS-12 crew is settling in on ISS.  The four non-Russian crew members are getting ready for three spacewalks that are scheduled for March 22, March 29 and April 8.  The March 29 spacewalk will be conducted by McClain and Koch, the first all-female spacewalk in history.

Note, March 19, 2019: NASA officials tell that despite Rogozin’s comments, the agreement on mixed crews is not yet finalized.  Also, although NASA’s webcast announcer said that Gerstenmaier “confirmed” Koch will remain on ISS longer, that also is not final.

Update, April 17, 2019:  NASA officially confirmed today that Koch will remain on ISS until February 2020 and set a new record for the longest duration spaceflight by a woman, 328 days.  The current record is held by NASA’s Peggy Whitson who spent 288 days in space over 2016-2017.

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