Engineers are making final preparations for launch of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft this weekend to ferry an all-veteran U.S.-Russian-Japanese crew to the International Space Station to boost the lab's crew complement back to six. The launch will kick off a "fantastically busy" timeline, with nine space station "visiting vehicle" operations and two spacewalks over the next six weeks.
"The mission is going to be action packed," Soyuz flight engineer and eventual space station commander Sunita Williams told CBS News. "I think we're really up for the pace, we're up for the challenge, we're ready to go."
Her ride -- the Soyuz TMA-05M spacecraft -- is scheduled for liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 10:40:03 p.m. EDT Saturday (GMT-4; 8:40 a.m. Sunday local time), the 37th anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project that opened the door to U.S.-Russian space cooperation.
"They've got a fantastically busy mission ahead of them, they are looking toward nine visiting vehicles during the time they're up on board the space station, which is really a lot of coming and going," said NASA chief astronaut Peggy Whitson, a veteran space station commander. "It's going to take a lot of choreography by the ground teams and the crews on orbit to make this all happen. It'll be a very challenging and exciting time for them."
At the controls in the cramped Soyuz command module's center seat will be Soyuz commander Yuri Malenchenko, veteran of a stay aboard the Mir space station, two long-duration expeditions aboard the International Space Station and a space shuttle station assembly flight. He has logged a combined total of 515 days in space.
Williams, strapped in to Malenchenko's left, spent 195 days in space during a space station expedition in 2006 and 2007, riding to and from the lab complex aboard a space shuttle. Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, who helped activate the station's Japanese research module during a 14-day 2008 shuttle flight, will be seated in the Soyuz command module's right seat.
If all goes well, Malenchenko will oversee an automated approach to the space station, docking at the Earth-facing Rassvet module around 12:52 a.m. EDT Tuesday. Standing by to welcome them aboard will be Expedition 32 commander Gennady Padalka, cosmonaut Sergei Revin and NASA astronaut Joseph Acaba, who were launched to the lab on May 15.
Williams is the 13th NASA astronaut trained to fly as a left-seat "board engineer" -- effectively the co-pilot -- aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. As such, she is trained to carry out a rendezvous or fly the craft back to Earth if illness or some other mishap prevented Malenchenko from carrying out his duties.
"It's been a little bit of a long road, it's been about a two-and-a-half-year training flow and as a left seater, you're here in Russia probably almost 50 percent of the time learning about the spacecraft, learning not only about it, but how to operate it, how to fly it, rendezvous, manual descents, and so it's pretty intense," Williams said.
"But the training program is awesome, the folks at Star City (near Moscow) are really great and they really get you prepared. I really feel pretty confident, particularly after being a backup, about the possibility, if anything happened to Yuri, that I'd be able to dock the spacecraft and manually bring it back home. I think that's pretty huge when you think about it."
During her first spaceflight, Williams made the climb into space strapped in on the space shuttle's lower deck with no major responsibilities for getting the ship to its destination. Going into her first station mission, Williams was focused on an upcoming spacewalk and normal work aboard the lab complex. This time around, she will serve as a space station flight engineer until Padalka's crew departs in mid September. At that point, Williams will become commander of Expedition 33, the second woman to take on that responsibility.
"So the focus was a little bit different," she said of her first flight. "This time, of course, being a left seater you're partially in charge of the vehicle and then living on the spacecraft and this time being the commander is going to be a little different, a lot of new challenges."
Those challenges will begin almost immediately with launch of a Japanese HTV cargo ship on July 21 followed the next day by the undocking of an unmanned Progress supply ship that will be used to test a new rendezvous system antenna. If it works properly, the new equipment will take the place of four antennas currently needed for rendezvous operations.
The Progress M-15M spacecraft will undock from the Earth-facing Pirs module on July 22 and move away to a point about 250 miles from the station. If all goes well, the spacecraft will redock at Pirs the next day, using the new antenna in a fully automated approach.
Three days after that, on July 27, the Japanese HTV cargo craft will arrive and the crew will use the station's robot arm to pluck it out of open space and berth it at the Earth-facing port of the forward Harmony module. Hatches will be opened the next day.
On July 30, the cosmonauts will jettison the Progress M-15M cargo ship, clearing the way for launch of the Progress M-16M cargo craft on August 1.
Progress and manned Soyuz missions are typically launched on trajectories that require 34 orbits -- about two days -- to reach the space station. For the next Progress flight, however, Russian flight controllers plan to test a modified rendezvous sequence that would result in docking just four orbits after launch. That would require closely timed adjustments to the station's orbit and the Russians are holding open the possibility of implementing a normal 34-orbit rendezvous if necessary.
But if the new rendezvous technique is successfully carried out, future Soyuz crews may be able to avoid an uncomfortable two days in the cramped spacecraft and reach the station the same day they launch.
Along with all the visiting vehicle work, the station crew also will be gearing up for a Russian spacewalk on August 16, followed by a U.S. excursion on August 30.
The Russian spacewalk will be carried out by Padalka and Malenchenko to relocate a Russian cargo crane and to install micrometeoroid debris shields. The NASA spacewalk will be carried out by Williams and Hoshide to replace a balky solar array power distribution box, called a main bus switching unit, and to install cables that will be needed after a new Russian lab module is delivered in a year or so.
The station is equipped with four MBSUs and their operation is critical for normal lab operations. Spares were mounted on external storage platforms before the shuttle fleet was retired and the astronauts will install one of those during the upcoming spacewalk, or EVA.
"It's a little bit complicated, it's almost like two EVAs because one of the parts is changing the main bus switching unit and the second part, which will be ongoing during that time, will be installing the cables for the Russian module that will come up probably in about a year," Williams said. "And so it's pretty busy.
"We're going to be together in the very beginning, we'll be split while (Hoshide is) riding the arm, installing the MBSU or moving the MBSU to its installation point. When he's actually installing the MBSU, I'll be up on the truss with him to make sure we install it correctly...In the meantime, I'll be on the back of the space station...routing electrical cables for the Russian module that's coming up later. So it's going to be really busy."
And throughout the expedition, crew will focus on carrying out the scientific experiments the station was built to conduct.
"The space station is a pretty unique place, where people actually live in space," Williams said. "I loved it last time, I almost didn't even want to leave. The question for me -- would I want to go back? -- was always 'yes!'
"What's really neat this time is the construction's done for the most part. The space station is huge, its interior is probably almost double the size when I was there last time, and the focus, of course, is on science. All we can do to help enhance the science experiments that are up there seems exciting to me. So I'm really looking forward to going up to the space station and using it in its full capability. It's going to be really neat."