Russia’s Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft, which also goes by its American designation of 26S, has blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday (4th April) at 10:18:20 PM GMT, carrying three crewmembers for the International Space Station’s (ISS’) Expedition 27 and Expedition 28 crews.
Following a two day free flight, TMA-21 will dock to the ISS at the Mini Research Module-2 (MRM-2) Zenith port on Wednesday (6th April) at 11:18 PM GMT. TMA-21 will remain docked to MRM-2 for five and a half months, whereupon it will undock and return to Earth, currently planned for 16th September.
Riding into space aboard TMA-21 will be two Russian Cosmonauts and one American Astronaut – two of whom are spaceflight rookies, and all of whom are Soyuz rookies.
Russian Cosmonaut Alexander Samokutyayev will serve as Commander of Soyuz TMA-21, and will be making his first trip into space. Born on 13th March 1970 in Penza, Russia, the 41 year old Samokutyayev was a pilot in the Russian Air Force before being selected as a Cosmonaut in 2003.
He has logged a total of 680 flying hours during his career. Samokutyayev is scheduled to make at least one Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) in the Russian Orlan spacesuit during his flight – Russian EVA-29 on 16th July.
Also making his first trip into space is Russian Cosmonaut Andrey Borisenko. Born on 17th April 1964 in Leningrad, Russia, the 46 year old Borisenko has served in the Russian Military, has worked for Rocket & Space Corporation (RSC) Energia on the Motion Control System (MCS) for the Mir space station, and has served as a Flight Director at Mission Control Center-Moscow (MCC-M) for the Mir and ISS Programs. He was selected as a Cosmonaut in 2003.
Rounding out the crew is American Astronaut Ron Garan, who is making his second spaceflight, having previously flown aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-124 mission in June 2008. Born on 30th October 1961 – the same year as Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight – in Yonkers, New York, the 49 year old Garan holds the rank of Colonel in the United States Air Force (USAF).
Garan, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Economics, a Masters of Aeronautical Science degree, and a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering, is an F-16 fighter pilot, who has logged over 5,000 flying hours in 30 different types of aircraft during his career. He has flown combat missions in the Desert Shield and Desert Storm campaigns.
Selected as a NASA Astronaut in 2000, Garan performed three EVAs during STS-124 in June 2008. He is scheduled to perform one EVA during the STS-135 mission in July, thus becoming the last ever person to spacewalk outside the Space Shuttle. Garan is the founder of the Manna Energy Foundation, an organisation which aims to implement a new system of making portable water in the villages of Rwanda in Africa. Garan will also be sharing his experiences of space during his mission via his Fragile Oasis website.
The Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft is of the older TMA variant (200 series), as opposed to the newer TMA-M variant (700 series), which recently conducted its first flight on the Soyuz TMA-01M mission.
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To mark the occasion of 50 years since mankind first ventured into space, during Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight on 12th April 1961, the TMA-21 spacecraft has been named “Gagarin” in honour of the event. A special Gagarin emblem can be seen on the exterior of the spacecraft’s Orbital Module (BO), and the “Soyuz” (“ϹОЮЗ”) banner on the BO has been replaced with a “Gagarin” (“ГАГАРИН”) banner.
A Gagarin emblem and text can also be seen on the protective fairing of the Soyuz rocket – which will be launching into space from the same Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad that Gagarin himself launched from 50 years ago. Besides from Gagarin’s launch into space, 12th April 2011 will also mark 30 years since the first flight of the Space Shuttle Program – STS-1 in 1981.
At the time of STS-1, the Russian and US space programs were rivals, but 30 years later, both programs co-operate with each other in the ISS Program. During its flight, the Gagarin Soyuz will also mark the 50th anniversary of the first American spaceflight by Alan Shepard.
The historic Gagarin Soyuz will not only be commemorating a past era in space exploration during its flight, but will also be heralding in a new era of space exploration, as the TMA-21 spacecraft is planned to witness the final Space Shuttle mission (STS-135), and the first ever commercial resupply mission to the ISS by a SpaceX Dragon capsule.
The Gagarin Soyuz may also participate in a unique and historic operation on the ISS, providing the STS-134 Soyuz photographic documentary flyabout is approved.
The TMA-21 spacecraft has been affected by a few problems during its processing flow, which is a rarity for the Soyuz spacecraft.
In October 2010, the Descent Module (SA) on the Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft was damaged during transit by train to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, due to human error in the way the Soyuz was secured to the train carriage. This damage required TMA-20’s SA to be removed and replaced with a new one, while the damaged SA was sent back to the factory for repair, which was safely completed.
That same repaired SA is being used on Soyuz TMA-21, which will pose no extra risk to the mission.
Soyuz TMA-21 was also affected by an issue with a capacitor in the spacecraft’s electrical system, which pushed the launch back from the original date of 30th March to today (4th April) in order to allow repairs to be carried out.
(Images via NASA, Roscosmos and L2 Soyuz Flyabout video).