Year In Space mission ends with Soyuz TMA-18M return

by Chris Gebhardt

After 340 days in space, the Year In Space mission has ended, following the undocking from the ISS, deorbit, and subsiquent landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan. The Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft returned Year In Space participants Scott Kelly and Mikhail Korniyenko as well as Soyuz Commander Sergey Volkov, with landing marked at 23:26 EST 1 March (04:26 UTC – 2 March).

Year In Space:

The International Space Station (ISS) is a remarkable accomplishment and one of NASA’s direct precursors to more extensive long-duration missions as the agency looks to send astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit and eventually to the surface of Mars.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 16.38.51As such, the orbiting outpost provides a unique and important platform for NASA toward understanding the effects of microgravity on the human body.

While these effects have been known since before the dawn of the human spaceflight age in 1961, never has NASA sought to understand – because no past mission has ever been scheduled to last even remotely as long – the effects microgravity can have on a human body during a full calendar year mission.

Moreover, until now, NASA has never had the ability to study such effects using identical twins, both of whom excel/excelled as NASA astronauts during the course of the Space Shuttle and ISS programs.

Twice the duration of a typical ISS tour, the station-record 340 days in space mission has afforded researchers the rare opportunity to study the medical, physiological, and psychological and performance challenges astronauts face during long-duration spaceflight.

The science that drove the one-year mission serves to help better understand the current assessments of crew performance and health and will help validate countermeasures to reduce the risks associated with future exploration that are critical to NASA’s Mars initiative.

NASA’s selection: Scott Kelly

When NASA first announced a joint Year In Space mission with the Russian Federal Space Agency, the agency also revealed that it would not only spend an entire year prior to the mission measuring and monitoring the body of astronaut Scott Kelly, but that it would also monitor the physical conditions of Scott Kelly’s brother, Mark Kelly, in the year prior to and the year encompassing Scott’s stay aboard the ISS.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 16.25.53The unique ability for NASA to use identical twin brothers for the Year In Space study arose primarily due to the fact that both Mark and Scott were/are NASA astronauts.

Mark and Scott were born on 21 February 1964 and were selected as astronaut candidates in April 1996.

Scott Kelly’s first flight was as Pilot in December 1999 aboard the highly-needed and time-sensitive STS-103 HSM-3A (Hubble Servicing Mission 3A) mission of the Shuttle Discovery to rescue operations of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Scott’s second mission was then as Commander of Endeavour during the August 2007 STS-118 mission – which was a high profile construction flight to the ISS during which former school teacher Barbara Morgan, the back-up to Sharon Christa McAuliffe on the STS-51L flight of Challenger in January 1986, flew as a full mission specialist.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 16.31.23After this, Scott transferred from Space Shuttle operations to International Space Station long duration missions and was assigned to his first ISS tour as part of the Expedition 25 and 26 crews in 2010-2011.

At the same time, Mark was assigned as Commander of the STS-134 finale flight of the shuttle Endeavour, a mission scheduled to fly in July 2010 and precede Scott Kelly’s arrival at the International Space Station in October of that same year.

However, manifest realignments moved STS-134 later into 2010 and then into 2011 – during which Scott would be aboard the ISS.

In the end, repeated delays to the previous Shuttle mission pushed STS-134 beyond the mid-March 2011 timeframe, causing Mark and Scott to miss each other in space.

Following his 2010-2011 tour on the ISS, Scott was quickly reassigned, in November 2012, to the Year In Space mission.

Russia’s selection: Mikhail Korniyenko

As part of the joint mission, the Russian Federal Space Agency chose Mikhail Korniyenko, a veteran cosmonaut, for the Russian side of the experiment.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 16.35.48Korniyenko was born on 15 April 1960 in Syzran, Kuybyshev Oblast, Russia.

After completing secondary school, he enjoyed a Soviet Army tenure of service from May 1978 to 1986 – while at the same time attending the Moscow Aviation Institute.

In 1986, he started worked at the Baikonur Launch Facility as a launch equipment specialist.

From 1991 to 1995, Korniyenko worked for various commercial companies before joining Energia Rocket/Space Corporation as an engineer in October 1995.

On 24 February 1998, Korniyenko was selected as a cosmonaut candidate, and in 1999 qualified as a test cosmonaut.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 16.37.23After serving as backup crew for Expeditions 8 and 16 and Soyuz TMA-10, he was finally assigned to his first flight, as Flight Engineer aboard the ISS for Expeditions 23/24 – which occurred from April to September 2010.

Following his performance on Expeditions 23/24, Korniyenko was selected in November 2012 as the primary Russian participant in the Year In Space mission.


Soyuz TMA-18M – three seats for five people:

Unique to the landing of Soyuz TMA-18M is the fact that it brought two long-duration Space Station residents back to Earth on a Soyuz other than the one they launched on.

Soyuz and Progress on the ISSNormally, with standard six-month rotations on the Space Station, the same three-person subset of a Station crew launches and returns to Earth on the same Soyuz.

However, since the on-orbit operational time of Soyuz covers a standard six-month duration and not a year-long mission, the particular Soyuz that Kelly and Kornienko returned to Earth on is one that launched in early September 2015, six months into their year long stay aboard the Station.

Specifically, Soyuz TMA-18M is the 127th Soyuz flown since the commencement of the program in 1967.

Launching on 2 September 2015 at 04:37:42 UTC from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the spacecraft performed a two-day orbital rendezvous trajectory with the ISS, docking at the Poisk docking port on 4 September at 07:42:00 UTC.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 16.44.52Aboard Soyuz TMA-18M for launch, rendezvous, and docking were Soyuz Commander Sergei Volkov, ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut and first Dane in space Andreas Mogensen, and Spaceflight Participant and Kazakhstan native Aydyn Aimbetov.

When hatches between the two spacecraft were opened, Volkov officially transferred to the ISS as an Expedition 45 and long-duration crew member while Mogensen and Aimbetov performed 8 days of operations as short-term residence.

On 12 September 2015, Mogensen and Aimbetov entered the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft – which delivered Kelly and Kornienko to the ISS on 28 March 2015 – along with ISS long-duration participant Gennady Padalka for return to Earth.

At this point, Kelly and Kornienko’s return spacecraft to Earth became Soyuz TMA-18M.

TMA-18M Undocking, deorbit, & landing – concluding Year In Space & Expedition 46

In preparation for the trip home, Kelly, Korniyenko, and Volkov donned their Sokol launch and entry suits last week for a series of fit checks and procedural run throughs ahead of this evening’s/morning’s activities.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 16.46.59On February 29, Kelly officially transferred command of the International Space Station from himself to fellow NASA astronaut Tim Kopra in a ceremony that took place at 15:10 EST on 29 February.

On March 1, before the official commencement of farewell operations, Kelly, Korniyenko, and Volkov once again donned their Sokol launch and entry suits and prepared for entry into their Soyuz module.

At 16:15 EST (21:15 UTC), Kelly, Korniyenko, and Volkov participated in the farewell and hatch closing ceremony aboard the Station with Station Commander Kopra and Flight Engineers Yuri Malenchenko (Russia) and Timothy Peake (United Kingdom).

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 16.48.53Hatch closure between the Space Station and the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecrafts officially occurred at 16:43 EST (21:43 UTC), at which point preparations for the physical separation and departure of Soyuz from the Space Station began.

Once inside the Soyuz, the TMA-18M crew closed the hatches between the Orbital Module and Descent Module (SA) and strapped themselves into their Kazbek couches inside the SA.

Following these preparations, per the timeline, Soyuz TMA-18M undocked from the ISS at 20:05 EST (01:05 UTC – 2 March).

Soyuz UndockingAt the moment of undocking, Expedition 46 officially came to an end and Expedition 47 began.

Following undocking, Soyuz backed away from the ISS and enjoyed a few hours of free flight as it departed the Station’s neighborhood via two separation burns while Kelly, Korniyenko, and Volkov prepared for the final aspect of their mission.

Then, just over two hours after undocking, the deorbit burn occurred at 22:34 EST (03:34 UTC) and reduced the Soyuz’s velocity just enough for it to begin the plunge back to Earth.

The Soyuz TMA-18M craft then completed the return to terra firma under parachute, landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan around 23:26 EST (04:26 UTC and 10:26 local Kazakhstan time – 2 March).

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 16.52.12The exact timing of touchdown, under soft thruster engine firing, was dependent on a number of factors – including local weather conditions, total weight of the descent module, and the precise trajectory it takes through the upper and lower atmosphere.

With TMA-18M safely back on Earth, Russian and American ground and air crews converged on the Soyuz to assist the crew with their exit from the SA.

Kelly, Korniyenko, and Volkov then underwent immediate, preliminary health checks once outside their Soyuz spacecraft.

After these initial checks, the crew will part ways for their respective countries and space agencies.

(Images via NASA and L2).

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