Expedition 47 Crew Launches Toward ISS for Record-Breaking Mission

Later this evening, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the final three members of ISS Expedition 47 will launch to the International Space Station. Aboard a Russian Soyuz-FG rocket, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, and cosmonauts Oleg Skripochka and Alexey Ovchinin are scheduled to liftoff at 5:26pm ET Friday, March 18, and will spend just under six hours in orbit before their Soyuz TMA-20M capsule docks to the station’s Poisk module at 11:12pm ET. 

Live coverage of the LAUNCH and DOCKING

begins at 4:30pm ET and 10:30pm ET, respectively.

 Expedition 47 crew members NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, and cosmonauts Oleg Skripochka and Alexei Ovchinin of the Russian space agency Roscosmos pose for a photograph before their Soyuz qualification exams Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Expedition 47 crew members NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, and cosmonauts Oleg Skripochka and Alexei Ovchinin of the Russian space agency Roscosmos pose for a photograph before their Soyuz qualification exams Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The station’s current inhabitants, astronauts Tim Kopra and Tim Peake, and cosmonaut Yuri Malencheko, have been the only three aboard since Sergey Volkov and One-Year crew members Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko returned to Earth March 1. In the days before the new crew's arrival, the trio completed upgrades to the station's communication systems in preparation for future commercial crew vehicles.

 Oleg Skripochka, left, and Jeff Williams inspect their Soyuz before launch. Photo Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

The arrival of the new crew will mark the beginning of a busy schedule for the International Space Station; and with added personnel comes the need for additional supplies. With a ULA Atlas-V 401 launching Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft, the SS Rick Husband, on March 22, and a Russian Progress cargo ship to follow on March 31, Expedition 47 will begin well-supplied with not only food and living necessities, but science experiments as well. 

With several hundred experiments currently underway on the space station, including studies in biology and biotechnology, as well as physical and Earth science, much of the research is focused on the creation of countermeasures to the adverse effects of spaceflight and weightlessness on the human body. Critical issues that occur in such an environment include the loss of bone and muscle mass, and fluid shifts that can change the autonomic regulation of blood pressure throughout the body; causing cardiovascular alterations that can effect vision, coordination, and balance. 

One of the science experiments conducted by Expedition 47, the Eli Lilly-Hard to Wet Surfaces experiment, will investigate the ability of tablets to dissolve in microgravity. Chemical analysis of these pharmaceutical-related materials, and their ability to dissolve in water outside gravity’s constraints, will help scientists design medicines that can be more effectively delivered to the body; an application with benefits both in space and on Earth.

A necessity for anyone in space longer than a week, maintaining a strict exercise regiment is one thing astronauts do to help slow the deleterious effects of microgravity, specifically on the musculoskeletal system. On average, astronauts exercise about two hours everyday. Specially designed to provide resistance force rather than physical weights, due to their weightlessness, the current exercise equipment on the International Space Station is bulky.

 Astronaut  Sunita Williams  ( Exp.32 ) runs, bungeed to the  Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill  ( COLBERT ), currently aboard the International Space Station.

Astronaut Sunita Williams (Exp.32) runs, bungeed to the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (COLBERT), currently aboard the International Space Station.

For an environment in which square-footage is at a premium, a smaller, more space-efficient design (forgive the pun) will better accommodate future long-duration missions to the moon and to Mars. Included as part of ISS Exp. 47’s cargo, the Miniature Exercise Device (MED-2) uses new robotic actuator technology to provide the necessary resistance needed for these workout routines, and could lead to a new generation of smaller and lighter exercising equipment.

An actuator is a type of motor that is responsible for moving or controlling a mechanism or system. It is operated by a source of energy, typically electric current, hydraulic fluid pressure, or pneumatic pressure, and converts that energy into motion.
— Wikipedia

MED-2 Certification unit, including Tbar handle, mounted on ARED platform. Photo Credit: NASA

After spending six months aboard the International Space Station, Williams, Skripochka, and Ovchinin will return to Earth in September. Setting a record for trips to the station by a NASA astronaut, this will be Jeff Williams’s third time aboard the ISS. Nearly a year in space under his belt already, when he returns he will have spent a cumulative 534 days in space; beating the record of his fellow NASA Astronaut Group 16 classmate, Scott Kelly, by 14 days.

Leading up to his launch, Williams published to Facebook, as well as other social media, outlining the crew’s final activities in their days before leaving Earth. 

Posting, as well, photos of the Soyuz integration facility, where the rocket stages are assembled, and of the crew walking down the Avenue of the Cosmonauts to plant a tree - a tradition at the Baikonur Cosmodrome since the first human to travel into space, Yuri Gagarin, did so in 1961. The last two years of their lives spent training for this mission, Williams, Skriprochka, and Ovchinin have their most exciting days ahead of them.

 Expedition 47/48 crew on the Avenue of the Cosmonauts before launch. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

Expedition 47/48 crew on the Avenue of the Cosmonauts before launch. Photo Credit: Roscosmos