Progress Docking Clears Way for Soyuz-TMA Launch

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An unmanned Russian cargo ship reached the international space station Nov. 2 carrying tons of fresh supplies for the orbiting lab’s three-man crew in the first successful delivery mission since an August launch failure.

The Progress 45 spacecraft docked at the space station at 7:41 a.m. EDT, ending a three-day trip that began with a smooth launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan atop a Russian-built Soyuz rocket. By coincidence, the cargo ship docked on the 11th anniversary of the arrival of the first space station crew, Expedition 1, in 2000, a mission that began the station’s unbroken streak of continued human presence in space.

The supplies aboard Progress 45 include 741 kilograms of propellant for the space station’s thrusters, nearly 50 kilograms of oxygen, 420 kilograms of water and 31,409 kilograms of other gear such as spare parts, maintenance equipment and experiment supplies.

The mission is Russia’s first successful flight of a Progress cargo ship since the Aug. 24 Soyuz rocket crash that destroyed the Progress 44 cargo ship due to a gas generator malfunction in the rocket’s third stage. The Soyuz and Progress 44 spaceship crashed in Siberia, Russian space officials said.

An investigation into the crash found that contamination in a gas generator fuel line or valve was the most likely cause of the crash. The malfunction was a rare failure for Russia’s typically dependable Soyuz boosters. “After the accident during the launch of a Progress cargo vehicle a couple months ago, there’s been some uncertainty in the program,” NASA astronaut Mike Fossum said from the space station after the Progress 45’s successful launch. “This is a really huge step. This helps clear the rocket of any underlying problems, and so the next Soyuz crew has already gone to Baikonur.”

The successful Progress 45 mission paves the way for a planned Nov. 14 launch of three new space station crew members aboard a Soyuz rocket similar to that used to launch the robotic Progress spacecraft. Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, had delayed the launch of the station’s new crew to make sure its Soyuz rockets were safe for manned launches.

That delay in regular crew launches forced the space station to drop from its full six-person crew size down to a three-man staff. Space station managers also discussed the possibility of leaving the space station without a crew, if it became necessary.

The station’s current crew — Fossum, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa — will return to Earth Nov. 22 after handing control of the orbiting lab over to their replacements riding up on the Nov. 14 Soyuz launch.

Another three-person crew will launch in December, space station officials have said.

“The December Soyuz mission will restore the space station crew size to six and continue normal crew rotations,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in a statement  after the Progress 45 launch.

The Progress 45 cargo ship parked at the Earth-facing Pirs docking port on the bottom of the space station. Another older cargo ship, called Progress 42, was previously docked there, but left the space station Oct. 29 to make room for Progress 45, NASA officials said.

The first iPads to fly in space were also delivered to the space station crew by the Russian space freighter.

Russian space officials packed the two Apple iPads on the Progress 45 cargo ship as entertainment tablets for the space station crew. They are the first tablets of their kind ever sent to the space station, space station officials have said.

The iPads join iPod music players and iPhone 4 devices already on the space station. The iPhone 4 devices were delivered by NASA space shuttle astronauts earlier this year and are loaded with an application to help astronauts perform experiments.

The next spacecraft to launch toward the space station will be the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft carrying NASA astronaut Dan Burbank and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Anton Shkaplerov. Liftoff is set for 11:14 p.m. EST on Nov. 13, which will make it 9:14 a.m. on Nov. 14 at the rocket’s Kazakhstan launch site.