A Soyuz FG rocket thundered to life and shot smoothly into orbit Monday carrying three crew members on a six-hour flight to the International Space Station. The problem-free ascent came less than two months after an Oct. 11 launch abort that forced a different crew to carry out safe-but-scary emergency landing.
That mishap was triggered when one of four strap-on boosters failed to separate cleanly two minutes after liftoff. But this time around, all four rockets separated as expected from the second stage core booster and the Soyuz crew ship slipped into its planned preliminary orbit eight minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff.
Veteran commander Oleg Kononenko, Canadian flight engineer David Saint-Jacques and NASA astronaut Anne McClain then rigged the ship for a four-orbit rendezvous, monitored a series of rocket firings to fine-tune their trajectory and glided to a picture-perfect docking at the station’s upper Poisk module at 12:33 p.m. EDT (GMT-5).
Two hours later, after verifying a structurally sound, airtight seal, hatches were opened and the Soyuz crew was welcomed aboard by NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev and Expedition 57 commander Alexander Gerst, a European Space Agency astronaut.
Gerst and company originally expected to be joined by Soyuz MS-10/56S commander Alexey Ovchinin and Nick Hague. But instead of reaching the space station, Ovchinin and Hague were forced to execute an emergency abort Oct. 11, landing about 250 miles downrange from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
“It’s a real tribute to the Russians,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s director of space operations, said at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. “I think they are both excited about getting a chance to go back to orbit again, to accomplish the mission and do what they were trained to go do.”
Koch originally expected to launch in early April with commander Oleg Skripochka and a United Arab Emirates guest astronaut. It’s not known when Skripochka and the UAE flier might make it back onto the launch schedule or how the rest of the year’s Soyuz flights will play out.
“The biggest thing that I wanted to see, Uncle Bruce, was looking out the window and looking back at our Earth,” she said. “And I will never forget the moment shortly after we got into orbit — we got up when it was dark — and about the same time David and I both looked out and we saw our first sunrise from orbit. And it was absolutely breathtaking!”
Gerst, Prokopyev and Auñón-Chancellor originally expected to return to Earth on Dec. 13, leaving the station in the hands of Ovchinin and Hague until Kononenko’s crew arrived Dec. 20.
But in the wake of the launch abort, Roscosmos moved up the Soyuz MS-11/57S launch to Dec. 3 and delayed the departure of Gerst’s crew by one week to Dec. 20. That will give the two crews nearly three weeks to deal with the arrival of a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship Thursday and a spacewalk by Prokopyev and Kononenko on Dec. 11.
“We did have that small leak at the end of August, and so they want to make sure everything looks OK prior to us undocking.”