Russians rule out Soyuz fly around of space station

CBS News

Russian mission managers Tuesday rejected a NASA proposal to undock a three-man Soyuz spacecraft for a fly around of the International Space Station to capture unprecedented views of the complex with the shuttle Discovery and a full complement of European, Japanese and Russian spacecraft attached.

Discovery's mission is the only time such a photograph would be possible before the shuttle fleet is retired later this summer.

"The Mission Management Team has conferred and the program's official decision is the fly about is a no-go," Stan Love radioed the shuttle-station crew from mission control, shortly after the astronauts attached a final U.S. module -- the Permanent Multipurpose Module -- to the space station. "We will keep the (one-day mission extension) for PMM outfitting and transfer to leave the station and crew in the best possible shape when Discovery undocks."

"Station copies, thanks," Expedition 26 commander Scott Kelly replied.

The fly-about proposal would have required Kelly, Soyuz commander Alexander Kaleri and Oleg Skripochka to undock from the Russian Poisk module in the Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft. Pulling straight away from the lab complex, the Soyuz would stop and the station would change its orientation to present a good angle for photos showing the entire laboratory and all the visiting vehicles.

The Soyuz then would maneuver for a quarter-lap fly around to line back up with the Poisk module and redock with the station. The procedure was expected to take about one hour from start to finish.

But the Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft is making its first flight with an upgraded avionics system and flight computer. Russian managers told their international counterparts today they could not go along with the fly-about proposal.

"Their primary basis was because this particular vehicle is what they consider to be a new vehicle, it's what we call a series 700 vehicle, and so this is its maiden flight," said Kenneth Todd, chairman of the space station Mission Management Team. "They had a flight program set aside for that vehicle, which had it coming to station, serving its six-month term there and then returning."

Given the short time available to assess the fly-about maneuver, along with contingency scenarios and other factors, "they came back to us and said they're recommending not doing it."

"It wasn't necessarily what we were hoping to get back, but at the same point I applaud the Russians for doing the right thing, not disregarding their own processes and making sure they do their own due diligence the way they should," Todd said. "I accepted the recommendation."

Support for the exercise was not unanimous on the U.S. side, with some engineers arguing the risks outweighed whatever benefits the unique photos would have provided.

A second Soyuz -- TMA-20 -- is docked to another port on the opposite side of the station. But that capsule's departure "cone" is very close to Discovery's vertical tail fin and Todd said NASA managers never considered using that vehicle.

Using the Soyuz TMA-01M spacecraft, thruster pluming was not an issue for Discovery because of the presence of a Japanese cargo ship just in front of the shuttle's nose that would have provided shielding.