After exhaustive work to recover from a dramatic August launch failure, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut blasted off in blizzard-like conditions late Sunday on a delayed flight to the International Space Station, the program's first manned launching since the U.S. shuttle was retired.
Amid steady snow, the Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft roared to life at 11:14:03 p.m. EST (10:14:03 a.m. Monday local time) and quickly climbed away from its frigid launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Trailing a brilliant jet of flame from its core stage and strap-on boosters, the rocket disappeared into low clouds a few moments after liftoff.
Live television from inside the spacecraft showed commander Anton Shkaplerov monitoring the ascent from the cramped capsule's center seat, flanked on the left by flight engineer Anatoly Ivanishin and on the right by shuttle veteran Daniel Burbank. All three looked relaxed and in good spirits as the Soyuz rocket climbed toward space.
"The G loads are increasing slightly," Shkaplerov radioed as the Soyuz accelerated. "Everything's OK on board, the crew feels good."
A few minutes later, the third stage ignited and continued boosting the Soyuz capsule to orbital velocity. A third stage failure in August led to the destruction of an unmanned Progress supply ship, but it was smooth sailing Sunday and about nine minutes after liftoff, the capsule separated from the booster rocket's upper stage and its two solar arrays unfolded as planned.
If all goes well, Shkaplerov will oversee an automated rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station around 12:33 a.m. Wednesday.
A father of two, Shkaplerov was a licensed pilot before leaving high school. He flew MiG fighter jets in the Russian military and is a veteran parachute instructor with more than 300 jumps to his credit. Ivanishin, father of a teenage son, flew MiGs as well and also is a veteran skydiver. He holds a degree in economics, statistics and information theory.
Burbank, a former Coast Guard helicopter pilot and father of two grown children, holds a master's in aeronautical science. He flew twice aboard the space shuttle, in 2000 and 2006.
"Two visits to the space station, both of them on the order of a couple of days each, was just enough to convince me that I wanted to do this longer," he told CBS News earlier this year. "To be there for six months, to do the research and to basically adapt, truly adapt to spaceflight and become a creature of space...that is something I'm really looking forward to."
Shkaplerov, Ivanishin, and Burbank originally planned to take off September 22, but the flight was delayed after the Progress third stage failure August 24. The third stage of the cargo craft's 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 on 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 it's 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-22 launching came 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 Mars.
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."
His confidence appeared to be justified. There were no signs of any technical problems with the third stage or any other component of the TMA-22 booster.
But the launch delay will have an impact on the crew's schedule once they get to the station.
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 December 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."