An unmanned cargo ship loaded with tons of supplies successfully docked at the international space station (ISS) May 1 despite a last-minute failure that forced a Russian cosmonaut to take control and guide the robotic freighter in manually.
Russian space station commander Oleg Kotov took manual control of the automated Progress cargo ship while it hovered about 1,000 meters away from the orbiting lab with 2.4 tons of supplies onboard.
Kotov, a colonel in the Russian air force, used a remote control station set up inside the station to guide the 7-meter-long spacecraft into a Russian docking port on the Earth-facing side of the orbiting laboratory.
“I found the station and I’m going to bring it into the center of the field of view,” Kotov told Russian Mission Control in Moscow. Flight controllers kept close tabs on Kotov’s progress. “I’m just going really slow and taking it very easy,” the cosmonaut said.
Kotov took control of Progress 37 after it failed to return to the proper docking orientation following a series of thruster firings. Kotov and two Russian crewmates monitored the cargo ship’s approach using the station’s Telerobotically Operated Rendezvous Unit (TORU) system.
NASA officials called Kotov’s manual docking “flawless.” He even docked it five minutes earlier than planned.
Russian Mission Control gave the station crew hearty congratulations and said Kotov’s Progress 37 rendezvous work may have set a new record.
“You brought it in from close to 1,000 meters,” Mission Control said. “That’s a first time in history.”
The Progress 37 cargo ship, also known as M-05M, is the latest in a series of robotic Russian spacecraft to haul vital supplies to the international space station. The spacecraft blasted off from the Central Asian spaceport, Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan April 28.
Progress spacecraft are made up of three different modules and resemble Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft — which ferry astronauts and cosmonauts to and from the station. Both are designed to fly and dock autonomously. But instead of the Soyuz’s crew capsule, Progress vehicles carry a tank of propellant to feed the space station’s rocket thrusters.
Progress freighters are also expendable, and are intentionally destroyed at the end of their missions. In late April, the Progress 35 spacecraft undocked from the station’s Pirs docking port — where the new Progress 37 parked May 1. That older spacecraft burned up over the Pacific Ocean April 27.
Progress 37 was carrying 870 kilograms of propellant, 50 kilograms of oxygen and air, 100 kilograms of water, and about 1,500 kilograms of experiment hardware and spare parts.
Progress 37’s arrival marked the start of a busy May for the international space station.
Another old unmanned cargo ship, Progress 36, is scheduled to depart the space station May 10. Soon after, NASA’s Space Shuttle Atlantis is due to launch on its final scheduled flight on May 14 to deliver a new Russian science module to the space station.
NASA plans to conduct its final shuttle mission in late November when Endeavour hauls the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the space station.