Expedition 27 docked successfully to the International Space Station (ISS) two days after launching from Baikonur, Kazakhstan aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft on 4 April 2011.
The bi-national expedition formed by Russian cosmonauts Andrey Borisenko (Commander of Mission) and Alexander Samokutyaev (Soyuz Commander), and NASA astronaut Ron Garan (Flight Engineer) left the Earth to join their three colleagues from Expedition 26, currently living and working in the space station.
During their preparation days at Baikonur, the astronaut and the two cosmonauts gave interviews to the press, who were mostly interested in their opinions of the upcoming celebration of 50 years of human space flight.
Among the many responses, astronaut Garan mentioned that his ancestors emigrated from Russia to America and that in a way, launching from the place where it all started was a comeback of special significance for him and his family. He was particularly happy to live in a time when nations found a way to work side by side for the benefit of humanity.
The crew of Expedition 27 proudly accepted the responsibility and pressure of representing space exploration in such a momentous occasion. They will be at the space station on 12 April, the day the world celebrates Yuri Gagarin’s flight that made him the first human in space.
Gagarin departed from the same launch pad 50 years ago, when the two nations, United States and Russia, were engaged in an aggressive competition to gain supremacy of space and become the leader by sending the first human to orbit.
Russia proved its commitment as a nation and sent not only one but the first 2 humans into orbit before the United States were able to put an astronaut into orbit.
The Russian government used this triumph as an instrument of public relations. They soon turned Yuri Gagarin into a mythical figure and showed him off as a trophy all over the world. He was revered for becoming the personification of hope to a nation that was looking for a hero. His name is still celebrated more than that of any politician or other personality in modern times.
As a result of this race, the space program went into over-drive and 8 years later, in 1969, the first American stood on the moon.
At Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Russian space centre, the astronauts followed their pre-flight routine for a few days before the flight. Among other local traditions, they left their autographs on the cosmonaut’s “Door of fame.”
On 4 March 2011 (5 March in Russia), the crew changed into their space suits and were driven to the launch pad in the Russian space van. Each astronaut was escorted out of the main building in the Russian tradition, locking arms with an official on each side.
After a short walk, at the base of the launch platform, they stood in line for a military salute to the ground commander. Next, they entered the lift to reach the entrance of the capsule and then were helped into their seats on-board the Soyuz.
Despite having new more comfortable seats to accommodate taller passengers, the capsule has a very tight fit with every available space used for cargo and instruments.
The launch went flawlessly under the control of the experts at the Cosmodrome. After all they have more than half a century of experience launching rockets.
At an altitude of 45 km, the first stage of the single engine rocket separated from the spacecraft, which continued its ascent at a speed of 5400 km/hr. Images from inside the capsule showed that everything went according to plan.
When the crew reached 168 km of altitude the second stage separated, leaving the third stage to propel the vehicle for an extra 4 minutes, accelerating to 21,700 km/hr.
A toy dog given to Commander Alexander Samokutyaev by his daughter was used as a marker of weightlessness. It started to float at 9minutes into the flight, shortly after the separation of the third stage, which delivering the Soyuz TMA-21 into orbit. At that point, Mission control in Moscow took over control of the flight.
Safely orbiting at an altitude of 230 km above sea level, the astronauts deployed the antennae and solar arrays. In the following two days, their altitude was gradually increased getting them closer to the International Space Station.
Baikonur Cosmodrome recently opened its doors to the public. Anyone can visit their facilities and watch a launch of a rocket from a distance of 2 km, a lot closer than at Kennedy Space Centre. Ticket prices range from £2,700 to £3,000 and can be purchased in advance from www.skyandspacetravel.com.
After 2 days of orbital flight, the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft systematically increased speed and altitude to reach the International Space Station, which is orbiting our planet between 278 and 460 km of altitude at a speed of 27,743 km/hr.
Once their speeds were matched, the approach was carefully monitored. The first part controlled by on-board computers and the final metres under the control of pilot Alexander Samokutyaev.
Docking was confirmed at 3:09am Moscow time on 7 April 2011 (or 23:09hr UTC on 6 April 2011), while ISS was flying over the Chilean Andes.
It took 3 hours for the crew to secure the spacecraft, checking for leakages on both sides while the pressure was gradually equalized to enable the new arrivals to enter the ISS.
Finally, hatches were opened at 2:13 UCT (3:13 UK time) as the ISS was flying at 354 km above the coast of New Zealand. Shortly after, the crews of Expedition 27 and 26 met and congratulated one another for a successful docking.
All the astronauts at the Space Station gathered in the Japanese module for a live conference with Mission Control in Korolev, near Moscow. The new arrivals received congratulations from officials and then had the opportunity to talk to their families.
With the most vulnerable part of their mission complete, the astronauts took a well-deserved rest and prepared to begin their work at the station the next day.
Expedition 26, formed by Dmitry Kondratyev, Paolo Nespoli and Catherine Coleman will complete their stay at the station in May and return to Earth on-board the Soyuz TMA20, currently docked to ISS.
The arrival of Expedition 28 is scheduled for June, it will be formed by the following astronauts: Satoshi Furukawa (Flight Engineer, Japan), Sergei Volkov (Soyuz Commander, Russia) and Michael Fossum (Flight Engineer, USA).
References¤ ‘Baikonur Cosmodrome Space Launches - Manned and Cargo Mission Observation Tours’ (2011). Sky and Space Travel. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 06 April 2011).
¤ ‘International Space Station’ (2011). Wikipedia. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 06 April 2011).
¤ “NASA Television” (2011). NASA. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed: 06 April 2011).