Russian and Americans prepare for Soyuz MS-12 launch to Station

For the first time in 2019, humans are preparing to launch to space aboard Roscosmos’ veteran Soyuz-FG rocket and the Soyuz MS crew vehicle.  The mission, Soyuz MS-12, will ferry three crewmembers, one Russian and two Americans, to the International Space Station.

Aleksey Ovchinin and Nick Hague are two of the crew, and both will strap back into a Soyuz just six months after they were involved in the Soyuz MS-10 In-Flight Abort on 11 October 2018.  They will be joined on Soyuz MS-12 by NASA astronaut Christina Koch.

Liftoff is set for 15:14:09 EDT (1914:09 UTC) on 14 March 2019 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.  Soyuz MS-12 will rendezvous and dock with the Station six hours later.

Navigating the “did they/didn’t they reach space on MS-10” debate:

In short: NASA says they did.  Russia says they didn’t.

Per flight data, the Soyuz MS-10 descent module carrying Ovchinin and Hague reached a maximum altitude of 93 km before returning to Earth’s surface.

The U.S. Air Force officially recognizes the boundary of space as beginning at 80 km (50 miles); the generally accepted but legitimately debated international boundary where space begins – the Kármán line – is at an altitude of 100 km.

NASA follows the U.S. Air Force definition.  Roscosmos follows the Kármán line definition.

This creates a mismatch and debate about whether the two astronauts reached space on their aborted flight last year.

While this might seem a trivial aspect of Soyuz MS-10 given its In-Flight Abort, it ties directly into the language used to describe the Soyuz MS-12 mission – i.e.: is MS-12 Hague’s first or second time in space?  Is it Ovchinin’s second or third time in space?

The answers depend on our understanding of how Soyuz MS-10 is classed.

For NASA, Hague is a “flown astronaut”.  In a media statement on 10 December 2018, NASA said that “Because Hague and Ovchinin launched and landed in a spacecraft on an intended mission to the International Space Station, NASA considers them to have achieved the status of flown astronauts, making this Hague’s second spaceflight and Ovchinin’s third.”

In that statement, NASA stopped short of saying if “flown astronaut” in Hague’s case means the agency recognizes that he made it to space or if “flown” simply means the rocket took off for space and thus he “flew it.”

In response to an NASASpaceflight inquiry, NASA confirmed that “flown astronaut” in this case means the space agency considers the Soyuz MS-10 crew to have reached space because they made it above the 80 km altitude height considered the start of space by the U.S. government.

The Soyuz MS-10 crew are greeted by relatives after being flown back to the launch site by the Search and Recovery crews. (Credit: NASA, Roscosmos)

Therefore, for NASA, Soyuz MS-12 will be Ovchinin’s third trip to space and Hague’s second.

Conversely, Roscosmos and Russia do not consider Soyuz MS-10 to have achieved space, and do not list that flight as a space credit to Ovchinin and Hague.

For Roscosmos, Soyuz MS-12 will be Ovchinin’s second trip to space and Hague’s first (same as Roscosmos listed for their participation on Soyuz MS-10), specifically stating that Ovchinin has a single spaceflight experience with Soyuz TMA-20M/Expeditions 47/48 and that Hague has no spaceflight experience.

Roscosmos does, in the same document, list the two crewmembers’ participation and presence on the Soyuz MS-10 mission but do not credit it as having achieved space as it did not pass the 100 km Kármán line boundary.

Soyuz MS-12:

Soyuz MS-12 will be the 141st launch of a Soyuz crew spacecraft since the first Soyuz variant flew on 28 November 1966.  The mission will also mark the Soyuz-FG rocket’s 68th launch, having flown 66 successful missions out of 67 flights to date (not including Soyuz MS-12) for a success of 98.5%.

Soyuz MS-12 was originally to launch in April 2019 but was brought forward to 1 March 2019 following the Soyuz MS-10 abort.  In late-January, the launch was pushed back to 14 March as part of shifting ISS crew needs. It was not, contrary to rumors, delayed because of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-1 mission.

Final vacuum testing of the Soyuz MS-12 crew vehicle, No. 742, was completed on 18 February with no issues.

The crew arrived at Baikonur on 26 February for final launch preparations.  The following day, they performed fit checks inside their Soyuz spacecraft and began final training.

During final training, the crew performed response tests inside the Soyuz crew vehicle, familiarized themselves with on-board documentation, and tested a number of the vehicle’s systems.

On 2 March, engineers finished fueling Soyuz MS-12 with propellants and compressed gases and then transported the vehicle to the spacecraft processing facility, where it entered final pre-launch processing.

Over the next four days, Soyuz MS-12 was mated to its third stage adapter and then encapsulated inside its payload fairing.

The crew conducted their final inspection on 10 March; the following day, Soyuz MS-12 was moved by train into the launch vehicle integration facility – where it was attached to the top of the third stage of the Soyuz-FG rocket.

The spacecraft’s payload fairing was then fitted with its Launch Abort Tower before the spacecraft/third stage integrated duo were mated to the top of the core stage of the Soyuz launch vehicle.

On 12 March, the integrated Soyuz rocket and crew vehicle were moved by rail to Site No. 1/5, Gagarin Start, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome – the same launch pad Yuri Gagarin launched from on the first human spaceflight 57 years 11 months ago.

During the countdown, all three stages of the Soyuz rocket will be filled with LOX (Liquid Oxygen) and RP-1 (rocket-grade kerosene).  After fueling is complete, the crew will depart crew quarters at Baikonur and, after a blessing by a Russian Orthodox priest, ride the elevator up the service tower and enter the Soyuz vehicle.

Position of the ISS relative to Baikonur at the scheduled launch time of Soyuz MS-12 on 14 March 2019. (Credit: GoISSWatch app)

Based on phasing requirements for a fast-track rendezvous with the ISS, the Soyuz-FG rocket will lift off with the Soyuz MS-12 crew at 15:14:09 EDT (1914:09 UTC – which is 01:14:09 on 15 March local time at Baikonur) to begin a 6 hour chase of the International Space Station.

At the time of launch, the ISS will be 1,832 km east-northeast of Baikonur.

The launch window is instantaneous.  Any issue will result in a scrub and recycle to another day.

The launch phase will last 8 minutes 44 seconds, at which point the Soyuz-FG’s third stage will shut down in the Soyuz MS-12 crew vehicle will separate having been placed into a roughly 200 km circular orbit.

Shortly after spacecraft separation, controllers in Mission Control Moscow will verify deployment of Soyuz MS-12’s solar arrays and antennas as well as its orbital parameters via a communications link with the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia.

If orbital parameters are perfect, the MS-12 crew will be given the go-ahead for a 6 hour fast-track rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station.

The detailed rendezvous timeline, including all burns and their associated velocity (delta-V) changes, is available for download on L2.

If all goes to plan, Soyuz will dock itself automatically to the International Space Station at 21:07 EDT (0107 UTC on 15 March), 5 hours 53 minutes after launch.

At the moment of docking, Expedition 58 will end and Expedition 59 will begin.

The Soyuz MS-12 docking will mark the second time in 11 days that a craft will dock to the Space Station, with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon having previously docked to ISS on 3 March.

Soyuz MS-12 is expected to remain at the Station for 203 days, undocking on 3 October 2019 to return Ovchinin, Hague, and Koch to Earth.

Of note, ISS crew rotations to and from the International Space Station and exactly when they will occur and who will be on what vehicle are not entirely confirmed for the end of 2019 due to continued fallout from the MS-10 launch failure and uncertainty about exactly when the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner crafts will enter service.

Specifically, there have been suggestions that Christina Koch, launching on MS-12, will remain on the Station until December 2019 or even longer into early 2020.

Per a NASA tweet dated 9 March 2019, NASA states that all three crewmembers launching on Soyuz MS-12 will return to Earth after six and a half months – though all crew assignments are subject to change even after launch (as was the case with Peggy Whitson in 2016/2017 who launched on a 6 month mission and ended up staying on ISS for 9 months).

The crew:

Originally, Soyuz MS-12 was to have launched two long-duration crewmembers to the International Space Station along with a spaceflight participant from the United Arab Emirates.

The original crew was Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka and Christina Koch from NASA.  Skripochka and Koch would have served a long-duration mission aboard Station.

They would have been joined by Hazza Al Mansouri from the United Arab Emirates, who would have flown with them to the ISS and returned to Earth a week later with Ovchinin and Hague on Soyuz MS-10.

The Soyuz MS-12 mission patch. (Credit: NASA, Roscosmos)

When the MS-10 launch abort occurred, large portions of future Soyuz crew launch manifests underwent significant changes.

For Soyuz MS-12, Ovchinin and Hague were reassigned to this flight, and Skripochka and Al Mansouri were removed.  Koch was chosen to remain on Soyuz MS-12 due to ISS crew needs and the already agreed to balance of Russian-segment and American-segment crewmembers.

For the revised Soyuz MS-12, the crew chose the callsign Burlak for that craft.

Aleksey Ovchinin (Roscosmos):

Aleksey Ovchinin was born on 28 September 1971 in Rybinsk, Yaroslavl Oblast, Russian SFSR and spent two years as a cadet at the Borisoglebsk Higher Military Pilot School before moving on to Yeisk Higher Military Pilot School from 1990-1992.

Alexey Ovchinin. (Credit: Roscosmos)

While at Yeisk, Ovchinin qualified as a pilot-engineer, after which he served as a pilot instructor in the Training Aviation Regiment (TAR) at Yeisk Higher Military Pilot School until February 1998.

Following his TAR post, Ovchinin was appointed commander of the aviation section of Krasnodar Military Aviation Institute before moving on to command the aviation unit of the 70th Separate Test Training Aviation Regiment of Special Purpose.

Throughout this portion of his career, Ovchinin amassed over 1,300 flying hours in Yakovlev Yak-52 and Aero L-39 Albatros aircraft.

In 2006, he was selected as a cosmonaut candidate and began training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center and participated in water landing Soyuz training in June 2008 before qualifying as a test cosmonaut on 9 June 2009.

On 26 April 2010, he was finally certified as a cosmonaut, after which he was dismissed from the Armed Services and classified as “reserve.”

Ovchinin aboard the ISS during Expedition 47. (Credit: NASA)

Ovchinin was subsequently assigned as part of the backup crew for Soyuz TMA-16M (March-September 2015) before earning his post as part of the prime crew for Soyuz TMA-20M, for which he served as Commander.

Soyuz TMA-20M launched on 18 March 2016 and delivered Ovchinin and two other crewmates to the International Space Station for Expeditions 47 and 48.

During Expedition 47, Ovchinin served as Flight Engineer 3, and was on the Station when SpaceX CRS-8 arrived carrying Bigelow’s inflatable BEAM module – which was attached to the ISS for in-orbit qualification.

For Expedition 48, Ovchinin moved up to serve as Flight Engineer 1 and, from inside ISS, assisted with two U.S. EVAs (spacewalks) – the first of which installed an International Docking Adaptor for Commercial Crew and the second of which retracted a thermal radiator on the Station’s Port truss.

Ovchinin and his two crewmates returned to Earth on 7 September 2016 on the Soyuz TMA-20M after 172 days in orbit.

With his landing, Ovchinin became the final person to command a Soyuz TMA-M series spacecraft, which was replaced by the Soyuz MS-series he would later command.

Ovchinin was Commander of the Soyuz MS-10 mission when it aborted shortly after side core separation on 11 October 2018.

Tyler Nicklaus “Nick” Hague (NASA):

Hague was born in Belleville, Kansas, in 1975 – graduating from high school in Hoxie, Kansas, before attending the United States Air Force Academy, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Astronautical Engineering in 1988.

That same year, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force in May 1998 before starting his Masters work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning an advanced degree in Astronautical Engineering in 2000.

In August 2000, he was assigned to Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he worked on advanced spacecraft technologies.  In 2003, he attended the flight test engineering course at the United States Air Force Test Pilot School, Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Following graduation in 2004, he worked at the 416th Flight Test Squadron, testing F-16, F-15 and T-38 aircraft.  In late 2004, he deployed for five months to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, conducting experimental airborne reconnaissance.

Nick Hague and his wife, Lieutenant Colonel Catie Hague (Credit: NASA/Josh Valcarcel)

In 2006, Hague joined the Department of Astronautics faculty at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado, teaching courses in introductory astronautics, linear control system analysis and design, and scuba.

In 2009, he was selected for the Air Force Fellows program in Washington, D.C., assigned as a member of the personal staff in the U.S. Senate to advise on matters of national defense and foreign policy.

Following the fellowship, Hague served in the Pentagon as a congressional appropriations liaison for United States Central Command before being assigned in 2012 to the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, Crystal City, Virginia, as the Deputy Division Chief for research and development.

Hague worked there until 2013 when he was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate, upon which he reported to the Johnson Space Center in Texas for two years of astronaut training.

In June 2016, Hague was promoted to Colonel – the same year he was selected as a member of the Expeditions 57 and 58 on the International Space Station.  He launched on this assignment on 11 October 2018 as Flight Engineer 1 on the Soyuz MS-10, which aborted shortly after launch.

He was subsequently reassigned to Expeditions 59 and 60 with a launch of Soyuz MS-12.

Christina Hammock Koch (NASA):

Christina Hammock Koch, born 29 January 1979 earned two Bachelor of Science degrees (Electrical Engineering and Physics) from North Carolina State University in 2001 and 2002, respectively.

The same year she received her Bachelor of Science in Physics, she also earned a Masters of Science in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State University as well.

After earning her degrees, Koch worked as an electrical engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center’s Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics, contributing to scientific instruments on several NASA missions of cosmology and astrophysics.

During her work at Goddard, Koch served as an Adjunct Professor of Physics at Montgomery College.

From 2004 to 2007, she was a research associate in the United States Antarctic Program completing a winter-over season at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station; she also served at Palmer Station during this time.

During her first Antarctic research stint, Koch served as a member of firefighting teams and Ocean/Glacier Search and Rescue.

In 2007, she returned to space science instrument development, working as an electrical engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory’s Space Department where she contributed to NASA’s Juno and Van Allen Probes missions studying radiation particles.

Christina Hammock, 2006, works as the cryogenic technician at South Pole.(Credit: Christina Hammock, National Science Foundation)

In 2010, she returned to Palmer Station in Antarctica and went on to serve in multiple winter season research initiatives at Summit Station in Greenland.

Two years later, she worked as an employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration serving as a field engineer for their Global Monitoring Division Baseline Observatory in Barrow, Alaska, and then as Station Chief of the American Samoa Observatory.

In 2012, she applied to NASA’s open call for new astronauts and was officially selected in June 2013 as one of eight members of the 21st NASA astronaut class.

Shortly after her selection, she reported to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for two years of astronaut candidate training.  She officially passed her training program and became a NASA astronaut in 2015.

Koch will make her first trip to space aboard Soyuz MS-12 as Flight Engineer 2 and will serve as Flight Engineer 5 for Expedition 59.

Koch signals her success at fire-starting during training, a technique that helped her sustain her life in the wilderness. (Credit: NASA)

Koch will launch with fellow 2013 class member Nick Hague and will join fellow classmate Anne McClain who is already aboard the International Space Station.

At the end of March, Koch is scheduled to perform a spacewalk with McClain, marking the first all-woman EVA in history.  They will be led on the ground by an all-woman team of Station flight and EVA directors as well.

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