Russian engineers readied a Soyuz rocket for launch Wednesday to ferry three fresh crew members to the International Space Station, a flight that was delayed nearly two months after the third stage of a similar booster malfunctioned and sent an unmanned Progress cargo ship spinning out of control in April.
The full results of an internal failure investigation have not been made public, but another Progress was successfully launched July 3 and NASA managers said they were satisfied the Russians had addressed the most likely cause of the Progress mishap and that the piloted version of the rocket was ready for launch.
Liftoff from Site 1 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan -- the same pad used by Yuri Gagarin at the dawn of the space age -- was targeted for 5:02:45 p.m. EDT Wednesday (GMT-4; 3:02 a.m. July 23 local time). As with all station flights, launch was timed to coincide with the moment Earth's rotation carries the pad into the plane of the space station's orbit.
At the controls in the Soyuz TMA-17M command module's center seat will be veteran cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, 51, flanked on the left by 45-year-old board engineer Kimiya Yui, representing the Japanese space agency, and on the right by NASA physician-astronaut Kjell Lindgren, 42. Yui and Lindgren are making their first space flight while Kononenko logged 391 days in orbit during two previous station stays.
"It's hard to call them rookies because they are very experienced and educated astronauts," Kononenko said. "But I can share with them some experience about entering microgravity for the first time. And also since I have returned twice before, I will be sharing some experience on how to get used to living back on Earth with the full gravity of the Earth."
For Lindgren, an Air Force Academy graduate, competitive skydiver and flight surgeon, getting a chance to see the Earth from orbit, experience weightlessness first hand and to study its effects on human physiology is the culmination of a life-long dream.
"This is something that I've dreamed of doing for as long as I can remember," he told a reporter earlier this month. "I went to the Air Force Academy with the specific goal of becoming an astronaut someday and as I matured, I think I recognized it was probably a nice goal to have but not something that was really feasible.
"And so I pursued other careers that were a little more reasonable and became a physician, but I still had that space bug. So I decided to go down to the Johnson Space Center, I was able to become a flight surgeon there, and then had the great fortune to be selected to the astronaut office."
Asked if he had any concerns about riding on the Soyuz booster, Lindgren, whose first name is pronounced "Chell," said he was confident the Russians had done everything possible to ensure the crew's safety.
"The booster we'll be riding on has a very successful history," he told CBS News. "Of course, we were concerned about the Progress mishap, but we know that our Russian colleagues have been working very diligently to investigate that mishap, we have folks back at NASA who have been working very hard also. We're confident in the vehicle we're going to fly."
But that doesn't mean riding a rocket is without risk. Lindgren said his family was aware of that risk, but encouraged him to pursue his dream.
"I don't think anybody can do this kind of work without the full support of the family," he said. "I feel very blessed to have just tremendous support, from my parents, from my sister and from my wife and children. They understand that this is really the pursuit of a dream for me."
If all goes well, Kononenko will oversee an automated four-orbit approach to the International Space Station Wednesday night, gliding in for a docking at the Russian Rassvet module around 10:46 p.m., five hours and 43 minutes after launch.
Standing by to welcome them aboard will be Expedition 44 commander Gennady Padalka, cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko and NASA astronaut Scott Kelly. Launched to the station March 27 aboard the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft, Kelly and Kornienko are four months into a nearly yearlong mission, participating in experiments to learn more about the long-term effects of weightlessness, space radiation and other aspects of the space environment.
Kononenko, Yui and Lindgren originally were scheduled for launch May 26, but the April 28 failure of the Progress M-27M/59P cargo ship threw a wrench in the carefully scripted space station crew rotation sequence.
The Progress launching appeared to go smoothly but moments before reaching orbit a malfunction of some sort occurred in the booster's upper stage that sent the cargo ship spinning into the wrong orbit, apparently damaging the freighter's propulsion system in the process. Flight controllers attempted to regain control but they were unsuccessful and the spacecraft plunged back into the atmosphere and burned up on May 8.
The failure prompted the Russians to delay the return to Earth of the three station fliers Kononenko's crew is replacing: Soyuz TMA-15M commander Anton Shkaplerov, NASA astronaut Terry Virts and European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti. Likewise, the launch of Kononenko, Lindgren and Yui was put on hold pending an accident investigation.
The Russians have not provided any details of their failure analysis, but they told their NASA counterparts they understood the problem and had taken corrective action. Launch of the next Progress, the M-28M/60P vehicle, was moved up from August to July 3 and Shkaplerov, Cristoforetti and Virts were cleared to return to Earth on June 11, a month later than planned.
Then, in the midst of preparations for the July 3 Progress launch, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo ship loaded with more than two tons of equipment and supplies broke up two minutes and 39 seconds after liftoff from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
It was the first failure in 19 flights of a Falcon 9, the second straight space station resupply failure and the third in the past seven flights dating back to the spectacular explosion of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket last October that destroyed a station-bound Cygnus cargo ship.
The Antares failure was blamed on the rocket's Russian-built engines, left overs from the Soviet Union's ill-fated moon program. Orbital is in the process of switching to different, more up-to-date Russian engines and hopes to resume flights next spring. In the meantime, the company has purchased a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket to launch a Cygnus cargo ship in December.
SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk said Monday the most likely cause of the Falcon 9 mishap was a strut that failed, allowing a high-pressure helium bottle in the rocket's second stage liquid oxygen tank to break free. Helium released into the tank then caused it to rupture, triggering the rocket's breakup.
Musk said he hoped to resume flights in September or October, but it's not yet known when the next space station resupply flight might be attempted.
"The last year has seen three failures: ours, Orbital Sciences and the Russian Progress," he said. "It's been a tough year, and each one of those failure modes has been quite different. It just goes to show, rockets are a fundamentally difficult thing."
But the latest Progress brought three tons of food, propellant, water and equipment to the station and the Japanese space agency plans to launch an HTV cargo ship in August. Two more Progress freighters are scheduled to arrive in September and November.
"What these three mishaps really demonstrate is just how difficult spaceflight is," Lindgren said. "The environment is unforgiving, and we are really working with small margins. ... Prior to the most recent successful Progress docking, we had supplies that got us out into October. With the successful docking of the Progress 60P, we've got even more supplies, fuel, water and food."
But the SpaceX failure threw a wrench into NASA's plans to rig the space station for dockings by commercial crew ships being built by Boeing and SpaceX, spacecraft intended to end the agency's sole reliance on Russia for rides to and from the lab complex.
Lost in the June 28 failure was an International Docking Adapter, or IDA, one of two needed to convert former shuttle docking ports into berths for Boeing's CST-100 capsule and SpaceX's manned Dragon. It is not known when NASA will launch the second IDA or when a replacement for the one that was destroyed can be assembled and launched.
"Unfortunately, the loss of the SpaceX 7 cargo capsule has changed our plans a little bit," Lindgren said. "Scott Kelly and I were scheduled to conduct a spacewalk to install IDA 1, the international docking adapter, onto the front of the space station. We won't be doing that spacewalk at this time.
"We do look forward to whatever we can accomplish to reconfigure the space station to prepare for the arrival of the commercial crew vehicles. We're very excited about the Boeing and the (manned) Dragon vehicles that are coming up and the ability to launch our crews from American soil on a U.S. launcher."
Despite the loss of the IDA and the postponement of the planned spacewalk, Lindgren and his crewmates face a busy few months in orbit.
Because Kelly and Kornienko are spending nearly a full year aboard the station -- and because Russian Soyuz ferry craft are only certified for six months in orbit -- the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft that carried them into space last March must be replaced with a fresh vehicle to carry the two yearlong crew members home next March.
So on Sept. 2, the replacement spacecraft, Soyuz TMA-18M, is scheduled for launch, carrying veteran cosmonaut Sergey Volkov, European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen and a yet-to-be-named Kazakh cosmonaut to replace singer/space tourist Sarah Brightman. She withdrew from the mission, without explanation, earlier this year.
For 10 days, the station will host nine crew members. Then on Sept 12, Mogensen and the Kazakh cosmonaut will join Padalka for the trip back to Earth aboard the TMA-16M Soyuz. Volkov will remain behind aboard the station and will command the TMA-18M spacecraft when it returns to Earth next March with Kelly and Kornienko.
Padalka became the world's most experienced spaceman in June when he moved past Sergei Krikalev's record of 803 days aloft across six missions. At landing Sept. 12, Padalka will have logged 878.6 days in space during five missions.
Meanwhile, aboard the space station, the six-man crew will focus on research.
"We'll be up on the space station for about five months, and that's one of the aspects of this mission that I'm most excited about, really getting to learn how to live and work in space in that weightless environment," Lindgren told a reporter in a pre-launch interview.
"Our main focus is really on the research. ... We have over 240 experiments that we'll be a part of during our time up there, and that's research that will be used to both extend our presence in deep space as well as to benefit folks back here on the Earth."
One special area of interest is ongoing research to better understand what is causing long-term vision problems for more than half the men and women who make long-duration stays in space.
The problem appears to involve fluid shifts toward the head in the microgravity environment of space that increases pressure in the skull, putting stress on the optic nerve, possibly even distorting the shape of the eyeball.
"We think it is a very serious issue, it's something that we don't completely understand at this point and so we have really an incredible assortment of diagnostic tools on board the space station to help us really define what's going on and what causes the visual changes we've been seeing," Lindgren said.
"This is something that will help us stay healthy on the International Space Station and (astronauts who) eventually go on to explore deep space. But there are also benefits in terms of vision research and helping folks with medical problems back here on the Earth."
Research aside, Lindgren said he hopes to share the experience of spaceflight through Twitter and other social media platforms.
"People don't necessarily have to go to the NASA web site to see pictures that are coming down (unfolding) in real time as the crew are going through their day, sharing their thoughts, sharing pictures," he said. "It really kind of creates a bridge to the space station."
Yui described himself as "a big tweeter," but Kononenko said he was not active in social media "because it actually takes up a lot of time."
"But at Roscosmos (the Russian space agency), we have a special service that prepares a full packet for me of questions from students and from children, and I always answer the questions and send down pictures. ... But I don't spend so much time on social media myself."