Soyuz MS-24 docks after first Russian crewed launch in a year

by Justin Davenport

The Soyuz MS-24 mission launched from Site 31/6 in Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, flying a crew of three to the International Space Station (ISS). Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub as well as NASA astronaut Loral O’Hara launched on Friday, Sept. 15, at 15:44 UTC, with a docking to ISS just over three hours later at 18:56 UTC.

Kononenko, Chub, and O’Hara have been waiting to go to space for some time now. They were originally set to fly to the ISS aboard Soyuz MS-23 in February 2023, but an inflight coolant leak aboard the docked Soyuz MS-22 back in December 2022 forced Roscosmos to make MS-23 fly to the Station uncrewed. 

The European Robotic Arm is seen being controlled by cosmonaut Anna Kikina to investigate the leak on board Soyuz MS-22. (Credit: NASA TV)

Soyuz MS-22 later safely returned to Earth without the crew, while the Soyuz MS-23 and the Progress MS-22, 23, and 24 spacecraft have not shown any signs of the coolant leaks that happened to Soyuz MS-22 and Progress MS-21 during their stays on the Station. These leaks have been officially ascribed to “external impacts” by Roscosmos.

The MS-23 craft would be used to bring the Soyuz MS-22 crewmembers — Sergey Prokopyev, Dmitry Petelin, and Frank Rubio of NASA — back to Earth following their extended tour of duty aboard the Station. This landing is scheduled for no earlier than Sept. 27, after this crew conducts handover activities related to the MS-24 docking.

Frank Rubio will become the first American to spend more than a calendar year in space. He has passed Mark Vande Hei’s record single spaceflight duration of 355 days and will have spent 371 consecutive days in space with an on-time landing in Kazakhstan on Sept. 27. 

This will be the US record for the longest single spaceflight, while the late Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov holds the world’s all-time record for longest single stay in space at 437 days. Polyakov’s flight was aboard the Mir space station in 1994-1995. 

Once the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft undocks with Prokopyev, Petelin, and Rubio on board, Expedition 69 will end and Expedition 70 will begin. The Soyuz MS-24 crewmembers will join the Crew-7 astronauts as members of the new expedition as per the usual process of changing flight increments aboard the Station.

Soyuz MS-24 commander Oleg Kononenko, born in what is now Turkmenabat, Turkmenistan, graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from the N.E. Zhukovskiy Kharkiv Aviation Institute in 1988 before the fall of the Soviet Union. He served as an engineer, then the lead design engineer, at the TsKB-Progress design bureau before becoming a cosmonaut.

Kononenko, 59, has flown four missions to the ISS, and MS-24 will be his fifth flight. The veteran cosmonaut also has four EVAs to his credit as well as 736 overall days in space, which is the most of any currently active cosmonaut or astronaut.

Cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko is conducting an EVA during Expedition 30 in 2012. He was helping to prepare the Pirs module to be decommissioned. (Credit: NASA)

Cosmonaut Nikolai Chub, 39, is making his first flight into space. Chub, from Novocherkassk in southern Russia, received a degree in management and informatics from the Novocherkassk Polytechnic Institute in 2006 and later received a graduate degree in economics from that same university.

Chub became a cosmonaut candidate in 2012 and a test cosmonaut in 2014 after serving as the director of the astronautics firm Space Tu, LLC. He has participated in the European Space Agency’s CAVES training program, and he has also served as a backup crewmember for the Soyuz MS-12 and MS-22 missions. He had been assigned as a primary crewmember for Soyuz MS-17 before being replaced by NASA’s Kate Rubins.

NASA’s Loral O’Hara, 40, is also making her first flight to space. The engineer and native of Houston, Texas served as an intern at JPL in 2003, attended the NASA Academy at Goddard Space Flight Center in 2004, and was a participant in the NASA KC-135 Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program in 2005.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Kansas, O’Hara got a Master of Science in aeronautics and astronautics from Purdue in 2009. She also worked at Rocketplane Limited and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where she worked on the Alvin and Jason underwater vehicles. O’Hara was selected as an astronaut candidate in June 2017 and graduated in January 2020 as a flight assignment-eligible astronaut.

L to R: NASA astronaut Loral O’Hara, crew commander Oleg Kononenko, and Nikolai Chub. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

This flight was only the 11th Soyuz launch vehicle family flight of 2023. While the Soyuz rocket family has flown as many as 1,900 missions in its life since 1966, the Soyuz vehicle’s current launch cadence — and Russia’s overall launch cadence — is nowhere near what the Soviet program’s cadence was during the Cold War. 

In addition, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and associated sanctions applied by the West has caused customers such as OneWeb to move its payloads to alternative launchers. ESA is no longer flying the Soyuz rocket from French Guiana, and Soyuz has been limited to ISS crew and cargo support flights along with mainly Russian civilian and military payloads ever since.

The MS-24 mission used the Soyuz 2.1a variant, and this flight will be the seventh flight of the 2.1a this year. During Soviet times, the Soyuz-U, which was also used for crewed flights, flew 47 times in 1979. This was a record number of launches for one type of rocket until the Falcon 9 Block 5 exceeded this in 2022. 

The Soyuz 2.1a for the MS-24 flight being raised on the launch pad. (Credit: NASA)

However, the 2.1a variant, which first flew in 2004, has as its record cadence eight flights in 2022, with a possibility of meeting or exceeding this record late this year. The Soyuz 2.1a will have flown 72 flights overall from 2004 onward after the Soyuz MS-24 flight.

The Soyuz 2.1a vehicle replaced the analog flight control system with a digital model, which allows the rocket to perform a roll maneuver to change its flight path. The Soyuz 2 variants — the 2.1a, 2.1b, and 2.1v — all use digital flight control, telemetry, and uprated engines.

Although the world’s geopolitical tensions are high at the current moment, the United States and the Russian Federation, as partner countries in the ISS, have agreed to continue to fly each other’s nationals on their spacecraft. This is being done to ensure that both countries can continue to fly people to the Station even if their own spacecraft are grounded by any mishap.

(Lead image: Soyuz MS-24 standing at Site 31/6 after rollout. Credit: NASA)

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