Seven hours and fifty minutes after a flawless liftoff from Baikonur at 2:42 AM Friday morning (local), the three person crew aboard Expedition 35’s Soyuz TMA-08M spacecraft opened the spacecraft’s hatch and entered the International Space Stations’s Poisk module. The new record breaking fast ascent, which was accomplished in four orbits, had been employed on three previous Progress resupply missions but this flight marked the first time it has been performed by a spacecraft with crew.
With a full complement of 6 once again aboard ISS, astronauts of the unified Expedition 35 will begin a steady program of research, working with experiments brought up by the recently departed SpaceX CRS-2 Dragon resupply craft. With both the SpaceX and Soyuz launches out of the way, attention will now shift to an upcoming launch which is not going to the station at all, but is critical to the program nonetheless. The oft delayed but highly anticipated test flight of the Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares launch vehicle is scheduled for the third week of April. If the test flight, which will carry an instrumented mass simulator is successful, the next flight, complete with a loaded Cygnus resupply vessel could take place several months later.
The fast ascent profile used for the first time in this launch marks a small, but perhaps meaningful change not just in how spaceflight to low Earth orbit occurs, but in how it is perceived. In all previous launches to the Station, and to Mir before that, particularly in the era of the Shuttle, television coverage tended to be of the launch only. Two days later, by the time the Shuttle arrived at the Station, life had gone, the news had changed, and except for the final flights, docking rarely received any broad coverage. While that aspect is certainly not going to change, it seems possible that with launch and arrival now taking place within the same 16 or so hour waking span that most of us measure our lives, the awareness of space stations as a destination, rather than an abstraction might creep in just little. Then again, maybe not.