Soyuz MS-15 Soyuz-FG retirement; Last launch from Gagarin’s Start lofts first Emirati astronaut

by Chris Gebhardt

It was the 70th and final ride for the Soyuz-FG rocket.  Flying into retirement after a career dedicated to serving as a bridge between the older Soyuz-U and the newer Soyuz 2 rocket variants, the launch marked the final use (as currently planned) of historic pad Site No. 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome from which human space exploration began over 58 years ago.

Aboard the Soyuz MS-15 crew vehicle are an international crew of three, including Hazzaa AlMansoori from the United Arab Emirates who will become the first Emirati astronaut.  Launch occurred at 09:57 EDT (13:57 UTC), followed by docking to the Station just under six hours later at 15:42 EDT (19:42 UTC).

Soyuz-FG’s retirement:

In the mid-1990s, Roscosmos realized it would have to upgrade its Soyuz rocket to ensure continued competition in the global commercial market in the 21st century.

At the time, the space agency was utilizing the Soyuz-U, designed largely in the 1960s and having taken its first flight on 18 May 1973.

At the time, it was cutting edge, and Soyuz-U would go on to set several records, including the highest launch rate per year with 47 flights in 1979 and a total career flight number of 786 missions by the time of its retirement in 2017.

More so, the rocket carried a 97.3% success rate.

But as technology improved and other rockets became more capable, the Soyuz-U began to show its age.  Its computer systems were analog, severely restricting the upgrades possible on the rocket.

Because of the analog Flight Control System, the rocket was incapable of rolling onto the correct azimuth after lifting off from its launch pads.  Therefore, the launch pads themselves had to literally be turned and angled in the correct direction so the rocket could simply pitch over and be on the correct course for its intended orbit.

Roscosmos knew they needed an upgraded version of the Soyuz for the 21st century, and designs began for what would eventually become the Soyuz 2 variant

But concerns raised by the international partners of the International Space Station regarding the use of the brand new and still in planning Soyuz 2 for crew transportation to the Station coupled with financial concerns and development delays to the new digital Flight Control Systems for Soyuz 2 led Roscosmos to create a new Soyuz variant designed solely to bridge the gap between Soyuz-U and Soyuz 2 and demonstrate flight performance of some of the new systems and engines intended for Soyuz 2.

The bridge-gap variant became the Soyuz-FG, which launched for the first time on 20 May 2001 from Site No. 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. 

The Soyuz-FG rocket with Soyuz MS-08 attached arrives at site № 1 “Gagarin Start” at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.

That mission successfully lofted the Progress M1-6 vehicle, a resupply craft, to the International Space Station.

As part of the step upgrade, the Soyuz-FG rocket used new, more powerful engines for its first stage boosters and core, powered by the RD-107A engines for the boosters and the RD-108A engine for the core stage.

While the new engines provided the same amount of thrust as the older engines used on the Soyuz-U, the engines included several new safety and performance upgrades that increased their safety and reliability.

The new Soyuz-FG continued to use the RD-0110 engine for its second stage, same as the Soyuz-U.

With the upgraded engines on its first stage and a host of other improvements over the Soyuz-U, the Soyuz-FG was designed largely for the purpose of taking over crew transportation duties of the Soyuz crew spacecraft to the International Space Station, a role it began to serve on 30 October 2002 with the launch of the new Soyuz TMA-1 spacecraft.

Since that first crew flight, it has been the only Russian rocket to launch humans to the International Space Station for the last 17 years, and since the retirement of the U.S. Space Shuttle fleet in July 2011 it has been the only rocket capable of transporting people to the International Space Station.

But despite its upgrades, it still carries an analog flight control system and isn’t capable of rolling onto course, meaning its launch pad still has to be rotated into the proper azimuth (alignment) prior to the vehicle lifting off.

For this reason, Soyuz-FG was always an interim rocket that would eventually be replaced by the Soyuz 2.

Today’s launch will be the Soyuz-FG variant’s 70th and final mission.  Of the rocket’s 69 previous missions, 68 have been successful with only one failure – that of the Soyuz MS-10 launch in October 2018.

During that flight, a problem at booster separation resulted in the disintegration of the rocket.  The launch abort system on top of the Soyuz function perfectly, pulling the two crew members inside the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft safely away from the failing rocket and returning them to Earth.

Those same two crewmembers boarded another Soyuz-FG rocket just six months later and successfully launched on a mission to the International Space Station.

With the retirement of the Soyuz-FG rocket, crew launch operations will be taken over by the Soyuz 2.1a variant, featuring digital flight control systems and additional safety improvements and upgrades.

A test of the Soyuz 2.1a rocket and new software patches/interfaces between the rocket and the Soyuz MS-series’ Launch Abort System was successfully tested last month with the uncrewed Soyuz MS-14 mission.

Soyuz 2.1a will officially take over Russian crew launches in April 2020 with Soyuz MS-16.

Uncertain future for Site No. 1/5 “Gagarin’s Start”:

The retirement of the Soyuz-FG rocket also means that this is the last time that historic Site No. 1/5 launch pad will be used for the foreseeable future.

Site No. 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The pad was used to launch the first ICBM, humanity’s first satellite (Sputnik), the first spacecraft to leave Earth orbit, the first spacecraft impactor to touch the lunar surface, and on 12 April 1961 for the first human spaceflight when Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth once.

Roscosmos had originally planned to scrap the pad after the Soyuz-FG’s retirement.

But in June 2019, announcements were made that the sum of $87 million (USD) had been secured from Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kazakhstan to upgrade Site No. 1/5 to be capable of launching the Soyuz 2 rocket.

However, since that announcement, it has become clear that funds were not actually secured but rather pledged.

To date, the UAE is insisting on assurances or laws from Russia that they won’t steal the money or use it for some other purpose than reconfiguring Site No. 1/5 for the Soyuz 2.

Observers have also noted that no preparatory work for rebuilding the pad has been seen, and no equipment to do so has been procured to date.

Most observers are incredibly skeptical that these upgrades will occur, with some noting that Site No. 1/5’s equipment might be stripped and used at Site No. 31/6 where Soyuz launch operations have shifted. 

If the upgrades do occur, how long they will take is another question.

As of June, Kazakh officials said the pad would be upgraded between 2020 and 2023, but nothing more has occurred since.

Thus, it is possible that this launch will be the final one from the historic launch pad of Gagarin’s Start.

With Soyuz MS-15, Site No. 1/5 hosted its 519th launch.

The crew of Soyuz MS-15:

Aboard the Soyuz MS-15 crew vehicle were Oleg Skripochka from Russia, Jessica Meir from the United States, and Hazzaa AlMansoori from the United Arab Emirates.

It marked the 144th flight of a Soyuz spacecraft and the 14th crewed mission for the Soyuz-MS series, the latest and most upgraded variant of the Soyuz crew vehicle to date.

Oleg Ivanovich Skripochka (Roscosmos):

Born 24 December 1969 in Nevinnomyssk, Stavropol Krai, Russia, Oleg Skripochka is a veteran cosmonaut and Flight Engineer aboard the International Space Station.

Oleg Skripochka. (Credit: Roscosmos)

A graduate of the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, Skripochka earned a degree as a mechanical engineer in rocket construction prior to his work as an engineer in Energia’s RSC project bureau with a specific focus on the design and development of transport and cargo vehicles.

Following this work, he was selected in 1997 as a test cosmonaut and undertook the advanced space training course from 1998-1999 before he was officially selected as a cosmonaut.

After seven years of ground operations, Skripochka was assigned as a backup crew member to Expedition 17, for which he trained from April 2007 to April 2008.  After that, he was officially assigned in August 2008 as an ISS Flight Engineer for Expeditions 25 and 26.

Prior to his time on the ISS, Skripochka was awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation and Pilot Cosmonaut of the Russian Federation titles on 12 April 2011 – the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight mission.

Skripochka’s first spaceflight launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on 7 October 2010 aboard the Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft, where he served as Flight Engineer 1.

During his first stay on the station, Skripochka performed three spacewalks and oversaw part of Station operations.

On 16 March 2011, Skripochka departed the ISS and returned to Earth after 159 days in space.

Skripochka aboard the ISS during Expedition 47. (Credit: NASA)

He received his second assignment to return to the International Space Station for Expeditions 47 and 48.

His second spaceflight began with the launch of Soyuz TMA-20M on 19 March 2016, for which he again served as Flight Engineer 1.

His second spaceflight racked up 172 days on orbit, bringing Skripochka’s total time in space to just under 332 days.

For his third spaceflight, Skripochka will serve as Commander of Soyuz MS-15. 

Joining Expedition 61, he will serve as Flight Engineer 4 before transitioning to Expedition 62 where he will serve as Commander of the International Space Station.

Dr. Jessica Ulrika Meir (NASA):

Dr. Jessica Meir, born 1 July 1977 in Caribou, Maine, is a Swedish-American with a distinguished career in space studies and marine biology.

Growing up in a place far removed from the space program, she was inspired to personally participate in space exploration by watching Space Shuttle missions. 

Her love of nature also drew her to her present calling. 

After graduating high school, Meir was admitted into Brown University, where she conducted and ran a student experiment using NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft, or “vomit comet” as it is colloquially known. 

After graduating from Brown, she went on to earn a Master’s degree in Space Studies from the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, in 2000. 

With the degree in hand, Meir work three years for Lockheed Martin Space Operations as an experiment support scientist for the human research facility at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. 

There, she coordinated and supported human space life science experiments – including muscle control and atrophy, lung function, and bone loss studies – performed on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Moreover, she participated in research flights aboard NASA’s vomit comet and also served as an Aquanaut on the Aquarius underwater habitat for the NEEMO-4 mission in 2002.

After completing work with Lockheed, Meir enrolled in the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where she earned a PhD in Marine Biology in 2009 with a focus on the diving physiology of emperor penguins and northern elephant seals. 

Later that year, she was a semi-finalist for NASA’s Astronaut Group 20 but was not ultimately selected.

Dr. Meir went on to perform post-doctoral research at the University of British Columbia in Canada, where she raised bar-headed geese so she could study how they tolerate high altitude low oxygen levels during flight over the Himalayan mountains.

After finishing as a semi-finalist in the astronaut 20 group selection, Dr. Meir reapplied for the 2013 21st NASA astronaut group and was selected as an astronaut candidate.

She completed candidate training in July 2015 and will now serve as Flight Engineer for Expeditions 61 and 62 aboard the International Space Station, returning to Earth in the spring of 2020. 

Holding dual U.S. and Swedish citizenship, she will become the first Swedish woman to travel into space and the second Swedish national (after Christer Fuglesang) to venture into space overall.

Hazzaa Ali AlMansoori (United Arab Emirates):

Born 13 December 1983 in Al Wathba, a suburb of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Hazzaa AlMansoori was taken with the various aspects of flight from a young age. 

After graduating high school, he enrolled at the Khalifa bin Zayed Air College, where he graduated in 2004 with a Bachelor’s degree in aviation. 

From there, he joined the UAE Armed Forces and became a military pilot having trained on F-16 fighter jets in Arizona in the United States. 

Hazza Ali AlMansoori. (Credit: NASA)

In 2017, after a period as an airshow pilot, AlMansoori was one of 4,022 people to respond to UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s invitation for young Emiraties to register for the UAE astronaut program.

Of the 4,022 applicants, AlMansoori was one of two candidates chosen in the first round of Emirati astronaut candidates after extensive training and testing in the UAE and Russian Federation.

His selection was officially announced on 3 September 2018 by the UAE Prime Minister.

AlMansoori underwent cosmonaut training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, in preparation for his role as a spaceflight participant aboard Soyuz MS-12 and the International Space Station.

His flight on Soyuz MS-12 was delayed in October 2018 following the In-Flight Abort of the Soyuz MS-10 mission and the ensuing need to shuffle the crew launch manifest on subsequent Soyuz missions to maintain Station operations.

AlMansoori was reassigned to Soyuz MS-15, on which he will launch.

After arriving at the International Space Station, he will be one of nine people living and working in space until 3 October, when he along with Aleksey Ovchinin Roscosmos and Nick Hague of NASA will board the Soyuz MS-12 spacecraft and return to Earth. 

All told, AlMansoori is expected to be in space for 8 days.

As part of his mission, he will bring 30 Al Ghaf tree seeds with him to the Station, seeds that will then be planted across the UAE after his return.

With this flight, AlMansoori becomes the first Emirati to fly into space, and the United Arab Emirates becomes the 41st nation to send one of its citizens into orbit.

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