En Route to the ISS
Wednesday, September 12th, 2012
by AJ Plunkett
Docking a spacecraft with the International Space Station can be a bit like trying to hop on an already moving train: you have to time it just right.
Normally, it takes at least two days to get an orbiting spacecraft into sync with the orbiting Space Station for docking. Recently, the Russians did it in six hours with an unmanned cargo ship.
That’s good new for space agencies looking to save money on fuel, oxygen, and food used during the shuttle process, which is often referred to as “chasing the station”. The less fuel and oxygen used in the chase, the more that can be delivered to the station and, presumably, fewer multi-million-dollar trips have to be made.
More importantly, the chase is two days of misery for astronauts. Well, maybe misery is a strong word, but the trip is never luxurious, and now the U.S. Space Shuttles have been retired.
A Russian Ride
After the success of the recent speed test, Russian Space Station commander Gennady Padalka was quoted by CBS News as saying, “It’s the dream of every cosmonaut and astronaut to be at the station as soon as possible, in a warm environment with hot meals”.
The only way to get humans to the Space Station these days is courtesy of the Russians, who have acknowledged the limitations of their manned Soyuz capsules. While the current capsules will accommodate only three crew members at a time, the spacecraft is being redesigned to hold both more men and women, as well as more cargo.
To offer an idea of just how cramped it can be on the capsule, the website Phys.org offered this description last year: The trip “will be a lot like squeezing into a three-seat compact car…for a very long road trip”. (For an even more vivid image, see the photograph posted with the description. Warning to the claustrophobic among you.)
Space Travel Itinerary
On a normal trip, it takes a spacecraft at least 34 Earth orbits to rendezvous with the Space Station. While there are precise course corrections and other tasks aboard the spacecraft that have to be done (a play-by-play of each orbit from NASA also shows a lot of “free time,” “free time,” “sleep” and “free time”).
For now, cosmonauts and astronauts will have to “dream” on for shorter trips to the ISS. While congratulations were in order from Russian mission control after the recent four-orbit rendezvous was accomplished, Russia’s chief flight director, Vladimir Solovyev, quickly followed up with, “It’s just a start, we have to move slowly, step by step.”
That’s because the speed test was with an unmanned spacecraft. Many of the precise moves in space are mandated by a complicated physics formula that calls for the spacecraft to liftoff at a certain time, get into orbit and up to speed by a certain time, and so forth, to allow it to finally meet up with its target.
It could be a while before the Russians — or anyone else — try that with humans aboard. After all, if you miss that jump onto the moving train…well, no dream is worth that.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.