After exhaustive work to recover from a dramatic August launch failure, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut was poised for blastoff late Sunday on a delayed flight to the International Space Station, the program's first manned launching since the U.S. shuttle was retired.
Soyuz TMA-22 commander Anton Shkaplerov, board engineer Anatoly Ivanishin, and shuttle veteran Daniel Burbank were scheduled to blast off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 11:14:04 p.m. EST (10:14:04 a.m. Nov. 14 local time), roughly the moment Earth's rotation carries the pad into the plane of the space station's orbit.
If all goes well, Shkaplerov will oversee an automated rendezvous and docking with the lab complex around 12:33 a.m. Wednesday.
"We have no doubt in our minds both the rocket and the vehicle are ready, all the activities have been done at the appropriate level of quality and reliability," said Vladimir Popovkin, director of the Russian Federal Space Agency.
Shkaplerov, Ivanishin, and Burbank originally planned to take off September 22, but the flight was delayed after an unmanned Progress cargo ship suffered a third stage malfunction during launch August 24 and failed to reach orbit.
The third stage of the cargo craft's Soyuz-U rocket is virtually identical to the one used in the manned version, and finding out what went wrong quickly became the station program's top priority.
In the wake of the failure, three of the station's six crew members returned to Earth September 16, leaving the lab complex in the hands of a reduced crew of three for an extended period: Expedition 29 commander Michael Fossum, Sergei Volkov, and Satoshi Furukawa.
Adding urgency to the failure investigation, Fossum and his crewmates faced a November 22 deadline for returning to Earth. If the TMA-22 crew was not off the ground by mid November, the station would have to be left unmanned for the first time in 11 years.
Russian space engineers carried out an exhaustive investigation and while the Progress third stage was lost during its fall back to Earth, it was determined that contamination in a propellant feed line was the most likely cause of the mishap.
Engines scheduled for use in upcoming flights were carefully inspected, quality control procedures were beefed up to prevent any recurrence of the problem, and another Progress cargo craft was successfully launched October 30.
"We have no dark thoughts," Shkaplerov said during a pre-launch news conference. "We are confident in our equipment. We talked to Roscosmos and Energia management where we discussed these issues...Plus we had another Progress launch in the meantime that was launched by the same exact booster. Everything was nominal.
"What's been made more intense are the checkout procedures," he said through an interpreter. "There are cameras installed in all the shops throughout all the facilities involved, so at every step, every bolt gets tightened, gets supervised and checked out three or four times before it gets signed off as ready for flight."
Even so, the TMA-2 launching comes on the heels of what appears to be yet another Russian space failure. A sophisticated Mars probe, launched by a Zenit rocket last Tuesday, was left stranded in low-Earth orbit after a malfunction of some sort prevented its propulsion system from igniting and boosting the craft toward the red planet.
While engineers have not yet given up efforts to salvage the mission, the 14.5-ton spacecraft has not responded to commands and barring a remarkable turnaround, the probe likely will fall back to Earth late this year or early 2012.
But the Soyuz system has nothing obvious in common with the Phobos-Grunt Mars probe and in any case, Burbank said he was satisfied with the outcome of the Soyuz failure investigation.
"We feel very good about the analysis and the work that was done to verify the integrity of the third stage, to verify the quality of the rocket," he said. "A lot of very, very difficult and diligent work was done to verify that the rocket's good. I'm not nervous about it."
Arriving and departing crews normally enjoy an extended "handover," giving the veterans a chance to thoroughly brief their replacements on the intricacies of station operations. Because of the TMA-22 launch delay, Shkaplerov, Ivanishin, and Burbank will arrive just one week before Fossum, Volkov, and Furukawa depart aboard the Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft.
"I think the hardest thing for us will be to quickly adapt and take the most advantage we can of the short couple of days we'll have on board with Sergei and with Mike and Satoshi," Burbank said. "But I think we made good progress before this, spending a lot of time talking with them, in some cases almost on a daily basis, and we've done a lot of the handover work with them ahead of time.
"I still anticipate it'll be a challenge for us, but we've got a big team on the ground ... and I think everything will be successful."
In addition to their normal handover work and science operations, Shkaplerov, Ivanishin and Burbank will need to reconfigure the station for normal operations, resetting systems that were modified to improve autonomous operations "on the off chance that we weren't able to launch this Soyuz on time," said Michael Barratt, a NASA astronaut and station veteran.
"We wanted to be sure the station was ready to work unmanned, essentially, to be an autonomous vehicle for a while," he said. "That took a lot to do, and they'll have to undo some of that work. And then they'll get down to the work of doing science and that's, of course, what the station was built for."
If all goes well, three more crew members--cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers, and NASA astronaut Donald Pettit--will take off aboard the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft on Dec. 21, docking two days later and boosting the lab's crew back to six.
In January or February, the Expedition 30 crew will oversee the first berthing of a commercial cargo ship, the centerpiece of a major push by NASA to replace lost shuttle capability, and install replacement computers in the U.S. segment of the lab complex. In addition, a Russian spacewalk is planned for February.
But overall, "the emphasis is squarely shifting towards utilization and research on board the space station as being the primary goal," Burbank said.
"Up until now, assembly has really been the major focus and with the recently completed last launch of the shuttle, all the major heavy lifting's been done and space station is at essentially the assembly complete phase. We do have some operational and assembly type activities that we plan on board space station, but again, research is the focus."