STAR CITY, Moscow Region, March 4 (Alexey Eremenko, RIA Novosti) – On Monday the crew of the 35/36th expedition to the International Space Station (ISS) spent six hours in a simulation module waiting for things to go wrong – and they did.
It could have been a toilet malfunction (imagine that in space), it could have been a hull breach. It actually was a fire – and though no equipment was really torched in Moscow Region’s Star City, the crew had to take it seriously or risk staying home.
The standard pre-flight exam, which simulates various emergencies in space, was revised for the ISS mission set to launch from Baikonur on March 29, which is to be the first manned flight of the Soyuz rocket to complete the trip to the station in six hours, not two days.
“If everything goes well, the short trip may become standard procedure for flights to ISS starting late 2013,” said Sergei Krikalev, the head of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, 25 kilometers east of Moscow.
Cutting flight time to the ISS was made possible by computing equipment improvement over the past decade and the accumulation of ballistic data from past launches, which allowed for more precise launch calculations, Krikalev said on Monday.
But the shorter trip has its own risks because the crew has less time to react to emergencies, Krikalev told RIA Novosti after exams began in Star City on the second day of the four-day-long cosmonaut exam session, set to wrap up on Wednesday.
After the US Space Shuttle program was concluded in 2011, the expendable Soyuz spacecraft, whose first modification debuted in 1967, remain the sole means of reaching the ISS for humans, though a number of programs to replace the Shuttle are in the works under NASA’s aegis. One of the tentative successors, the privately owned Dragon, completed an unmanned flight to the ISS on Sunday.
The main and backup spaceman crews assemble for exams at dawn at two separate but equally huge hangars at the Gagarin Center, whose size dwarfs the life-sized spacecraft simulators inside.
Crew captains draw exam tasks listing various emergencies they will have to deal with during the simulation flight. The tasks are coded, so only the examiners know which five kinds of space trouble the crews will be facing that day.
“The main emergency will be…fire!” Valery Korzun, who oversees cosmonaut training at the facility, told reporters after the main crew disappeared in the ISS simulator.
“But hush! They may overhear us and know what they’ve got coming,” he said in a dramatic whisper.
However, cosmonauts never really flunk the tests – not after years of preparation. “It’s too late to be afraid of anything at this stage,” Alexander Misurkin, one of the three members of Expedition 35/36, said before entering the station’s imitation module.
Both teams passed the tests with flying colors on Monday, same as on the first day of the exam session on Friday, Gagarin Center’s press service reported. The media were not allowed to observe exactly how they fought the mock fire and other space trouble.
The 35/36th ISS mission comprises two Russians – Misurkin, a space newbie, and Pavel Vinogradov, who completed two space flights – as well as US astronaut Christopher Cassidy, a former Navy SEAL who flew to the ISS on a Space Shuttle in 2009.
The mission is poised not just to test a new launch procedure, but also to break a record: Vinogradov, who is expected to mark his 60th birthday on August 31 in orbit, is on track to become the oldest Russian in space.
The record is currently held by Valery Ryumin, who flew in 1998 at the age of 58. Both he and Vinogradov still fall far short of the world record holder US astronaut John Glenn, who made his second and last trip to space in 1998 when he was 77 years old – 36 years after his first flight at the dawn of the space era.
RIA Novosti reporter Alexei Peslyak contributed to this report from Star City.