In the uncertain climate of the post-space shuttle era, one thing is certain about Soyuz rockets: they ain’t your daddy’s ride to the space station.
Late Sunday night at 11:14PM Cape Canaveral time (4:14 UTC), a Soyuz FG rocket lifted off from Russia’s Bakinour Cosmodrome towards the International Space Station. It was the first launch of humans to the orbiting laboratory after the retirement of the American space shuttles. One NASA astronaut, Dan Burbank, was aboard, along with fellow cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin.
The scene prior to liftoff was surreal. As a gray dawn crept across the Kazakhstan steppe, the temperature dropped to -5° Celsius (24° Fahrenheit), and 15 centimeters (6 inches) of snow began to pile up around the fueled Soyuz. Members of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, milled about the launch pad in massive winter coats and traditional Ushanka hats, chatting casually, breath sharply visible in the frigid air. Cold? No problem. Snow? That’s what boots are for. Only the wind represented any real threat, and it was within acceptable parameters for launch as the countdown clock approached zero.
On top of the Soyuz FG rocket was Soyuz TMA-22, the last analog capsule to be used in the series — slated to be replaced with a newer, digital model already in service. The three spacefarers within are scheduled to dock with the ISS Wednesday morning, just after midnight at 12:33AM ET (5:33 UTC). Once onboard, they will likely be a welcome sight to NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, JAXA flight engineer Satoshi Furukawa, and cosmonaut Sergei Volkov. The three members of Expedition 29 have been holding down the fort alone since September 16.
The failure of a Progress resupply mission on August 24 put the station’s future in jeopardy because the troublesome Soyuz-U carrying Progress to orbit has a third stage similar to its human-rated cousin, the Soyuz FG. Quick troubleshooting and corrective actions by Russian engineers got the Soyuz back on track October 30, with the successful launch and subsequent docking of Progress M-13M.
At launch time, the snowy conditions in Kazhakstan made it difficult to determine the live video feed was in color, until the bright yellow-orange flames of burning kerosene and liquid oxygen lit up the landscape. Live footage of the ascending rocket quickly faltered as snow clouds swallowed the rocket’s exhaust plume.
The atmosphere inside Soyuz TMA-22, however, was far warmer. Soviet launches to the ISS provide viewers with a live view from inside the capsule — another difference from the space shuttle program. One camera focused on cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin, along with a dangling plush red Angry Bird character from the popular smartphone game Angry Birds.
Angry Bird may have just been there for moral support, but he actually provided an opportunity for some great science. At many points during the flight, he was the only indicator that the occupants inside the capsule were hurtling out of the Earth’s atmosphere at thousands of miles per hour. Hanging from a long cord, the bird swung in small but violent arcs, pulled by unseen forces impossible to duplicate on the Earth’s surface. Anton Shkaplerov batted the bird several times with a long poker normally used by the crew to press console buttons while strapped in their seats. Each time he was batted, Angry Bird swung around jovially before quickly returning to his original position, pulled tight on his tether towards the trio.
And then it was over: Angry Bird began to float. The chase toward the ISS has officially started. Expedition 29, Part II begins in less than two days when the Soyuz capsule and its fuzzy mascot reach the space station.