ISS crew drops from 12 to 2
In space, nobody can hear you scream (but the other guy)
After being jam-packed with a dozen astronauts last week, the International Space Station will look mighty empty with only a two-man skeleton crew holding down the orbiting outpost for most of December.
Expedition 21 crew aboard the ISS are spending Monday preparing to bid adieu to three of its members. The trio's ticket to Earth aboard a Soyuz spacecraft follows the exit of seven astronauts in NASA's Space Shuttle Atlantis last week.
The mass astro-exodus will leave only Expedition Commander Jeff Williams and Flight Engineer Max Suraev to staff the ISS by their lonesomes for three weeks until reinforcements arrive.
They'll be joined December 23 by Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, NASA's T.J. Creamer, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, launching toward the station three days prior aboard the Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft.
NASA said that after working for about seven and a half hours Monday doing regular science and maintenance duties, the present crew of five took a four-hour power nap before making preparations for the upcoming departure. The Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft will undock from the orbiting outpost Monday at 10:56 pm EST (Tuesday 3:56 am GMT) with three aboard. Soyuz Commander Roman Romanenko, ESA Flight Engineer Frank DeWinne, and Canadian Space Agency Flight Engineer Bob Thirsk are scheduled to land in Kazakhstan at 2:15 am Tuesday EST, ending a 188-day mission in space (186 days aboard the ISS).
Williams was recently promoted to commander of the space station's Expedition 22 mission after outgoing commander, DeWinn relinquished control on November 24.
Last Friday, Space Shuttle Atlantis and its crew of seven safely touched down at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ending its 11-day journey to deliver about 30,000 pounds of ISS replacement parts. It also provided astronaut Nicole Stott with a ride back to terra firma after spending 91 days in space. Stott is expected to be the last astronaut ever to be ferried to or from the ISS by Space Shuttle.
NASA's current plans call for the Space Shuttle program to be retired in 2010 after nearly 30 years of service. According to the plans, it will be up to Russia's Soyuz fleet to swap the station's crew. Unless US government budgeting plans force NASA to delay Shuttle retirement while development of the new Orion fleet gets worked out.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, preparations for space shuttle Endeavour and its crew are ramping up for the STS-130 mission targeted for launch February 4, 2010.
Endeavour will deliver the final US space station module, Tranquility in addition to the ESA-built Cupola observatory module that will provide ISS crew with a view of outside robotic operations, docked spacecraft, and one hell of a view of Earth. ®
1 down, 5 to go...
Shuttle flights, that is.
The Russians don't mess around. 90 minutes after Soyuz undocks, they're on the ground. None of that faffing about for 3 days checking tiles and waiting for the weather to clear. In fact, the weather was so bad, the usual recovery helicopters were grounded, and they had to use trucks.
I wish my space program was Russian instead of American. I'll hoist a vodka to 'em.
Y'know, I've been thinking about that, too...
A lot of us might point and laugh at Soyuz for looking like it was hammered together by a bunch of fat little old babushka-wearing women at the Heroic Peoples' Spacekraft Works, but, seriously... the Soyuz has been sort of like the Volkswagen Beetle of space... carefully, incrementally updated and improved; it may look clunky and ugly, but it's proven, and it works... even if the outer thermal blanket looks like the lining of an old Army sleeping bag. They've been flying the thing for over forty years now, and they've pretty much got it down pat.
Honestly, it makes me jealous as hell; iirc, we quit building Apollo spacecraft roundabout 1970ish, with just enough left in stock to fly the remaining lunar expeditions and three or four SkyLab missions. I can remember, as a young teenager, reading about the upcoming Shuttle program and thinking it was going to be cool as hell -- a spacegoing DC3 that can carry large cargo, satellites or space-station components to orbit, and glide back in and land on a runway like a regular airplane.
Thirty years of retrospect, though, makes me think it was the biggest mistake NASA ever made -- a spacegoing white elephant. Apollo could've been our Soyuz -- easily adaptable and dependable. By the time the SkyLab missions were flying, it had finally matured into a really sweet machine, and it would've been a relative piece of cake to replace the LM with a mission module -- like the one Soyuz uses -- that could be easily custom-outfitted depending on the mission, such as long-duration science flights, or ferrying cargo to a space station. Heat-shielding wasn't as big an issue, either -- an abalative coating on the bottom that burned away and carried the heat with it. Granted, the heat shield could only fly once, but it wasn't as big a pain in the ass as trying to heat-shield a winged boost-glide vehicle like the Shuttle. They don't call that goddamn' thing the Flying Brickyard for nothing.
I know a lot of folks like to bust on NASA for going back to a ballistic capsule design for their next-gen manned craft, and give them shit for building a craft whose command module outwardly resembles Apollo, but I think it's the best decision they could've made. I think if, after the lunar expeditions were finished, they'd stuck with the tried'n'true Apollo design, incrementally modifying and adapting it as the Russians did with Soyuz, we wouldn't be having the pissfight over the next-gen manned craft that we're having here now.
pasty Christmas dinner
Actually, they've come a long way since those old-skool paste/dehydrated food packets and tubes they used in Mercury and Gemini. Aboard Apollo, they had hot dogs, sliced bread, deviled ham (remember the video of Buzz Aldrin making a deviled ham sandwich aboard Apollo 11?), and a special beef stew made with an extra-thick broth to keep it from floating out of the cup. Much of the food aboard the Shuttle and ISS these days is actual Earth food -- some in cans, some in little plastic tubs. Things like soups and drinks still require special packaging, of course, but other than that, pretty much anything that won't float out of the can or bowl can be eaten normally, with a fork or spoon.
Hell, they even have shrimp cocktail and M&Ms out there, now, and ice cream -- although the ice cream isn't quite up to Earth standards, as I understand from friends who've actually tried the foil-packaged space ice-cream bars which one can actually buy in the gift shop at the National Air & Space Museum. They tell me it's fun to try once, just to say you've tried it, but it's not all that great. However, the shrimp cocktail is apparently quite popular with Shuttle crews, and is actually sometimes used as a trade medium ("hey, are you gonna finish that shrimp cocktail? I've got enough deviled ham left here for one more sandwich...")
Pint of lager, as they don't have beer in space yet, so I'm going to have another for the ISS skeleton crew.