The unmanned Russian Soyuz crew spacecraft performed a flawless automated docking with the International Space Station on Saturday.Providing a reliable lifeboat for three of the lab’s crew members and a safe ride home at the end of an extended mission.
The picture-perfect docking was a major relief to American and Russian planners after a micrometeoroid strike crippled the Soyuz parked at the lab complex.
With a replacement spacecraft in place, NASA is clear to launch the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule early Monday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which will carry another four-person crew to the outpost.
Mission managers met Saturday evening for a formal launch readiness review, finalized a few open issues, and voted to continue the countdown.
“We had a good review today. I thought it was pretty thorough with all the Falcon 9 systems, the (Crew) Dragon systems and the ground systems,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial team program manager.
“In that release readiness review, we voted ‘go’ to move toward release. … It’s an exciting timeline, and we’re looking forward to a good release on Monday morning.”
The Soyuz docking marked a major milestone, easing concerns about how to bring the three station fliers safely back to Earth.
The Soyuz MS-23/69S spacecraft lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Thursday, carrying supplies and equipment instead of a crew, and guided it to a picture-perfect automated docking at Russia’s Poisk module facing space at 7:58 p.m. ET.
The new Soyuz will replace the MS-22 vehicle that carried Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitry Betlin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio into orbit last September.
They originally planned to return to Earth next month, but on December 14, their Soyuz MS-22 vehicleA line that carries coolant to the external radiators is through a deformed micrometeoroid. As a result, all available coolant was expelled into space.
After an analysis, Russian engineers concluded that the spacecraft could not safely return the three crew members to Earth, given the possibility of overheating after opening critical computers and other sensitive equipment.
Instead, they proceeded to launch the MS-23 vehicle to serve as a lifeboat in the event of an evacuation class emergency, avoiding it so that the crew could eventually return to Earth. To get the normal crew rotation schedule back on track, Prokofiev and his crew would spend a full year in space instead of six months.
But with the arrival of the Soyuz MS-23 shuttle, they’ll once again have a reliable shuttle to take them home in case of a medical emergency or any other problems that require immediate evacuation from the space station.
The other four crew members of the space station — Crew-5 commander Nicole Mann, Josh Kasada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and astronaut Anna Kikina — launched to the lab last October aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. They plan to return to Earth on March 6.
Their replacements — Crew-6 commander Stephen Bowen, Woody Hoburg, astronaut Andrei Fedayev and United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Alnyadi — are scheduled to launch from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center at 1:45 a.m. Monday.
Bowen and his crew strapped into their Crew Dragon overnight Thursday and took part in a dress rehearsal countdown. Hours later, after the crew left the pad, SpaceX engineers tested the Falcon 9’s first stage engines to verify their readiness for flight.
The crew plans to start the real thing only after 11pm on Sunday. Assuming an on-time liftoff early Monday, the Crew-6 shuttle will reach the space station at 2:38 a.m. Tuesday and dock in the forward Harmony module’s space-facing port. The Crew-5 flyers will close the 151-day mission six days later.
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