New crew to space station undergo 'malfunction' tests
Moscow, March 5 : The crew of the next expedition to the International Space Station (ISS) spent six hours in a simulation module waiting for things to go wrong - and they did.
It could have been a toilet malfunction, it could have been a hull breach. It actually was a fire - and though no equipment was really torched in Moscow region's Star City, the crew had to take it seriously or risk staying home.
The standard pre-flight exam, which simulates various emergencies in space, was revised for the ISS mission set to launch from Baikonur March 29, which is to be the first manned flight of the Soyuz rocket to complete the trip to the station in six hours, not two days.
"If everything goes well, the short trip may become standard procedure for flights to ISS starting late 2013," said Sergei Krikalev, head of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, 25 km from Moscow.
Cutting flight time to the ISS was made possible by computing equipment improvement over the past decade and the accumulation of ballistic data from past launches, which allowed for more precise launch calculations, Krikalev said.
But the shorter trip has its own risks because the crew has less time to react to emergencies, Krikalev said.
After the US Space Shuttle programme was concluded in 2011, the Soyuz spacecraft, whose first modification debuted in 1967, remains the sole means of reaching the ISS for humans, though a number of programmes to replace the Shuttle are in the works under NASA's aegis.
One of the tentative successors, the privately-owned Dragon, has completed an unmanned flight to the ISS.
The main and backup spaceman crews assembled for exams at two separate but equally huge hangars at the Gagarin Center, whose size dwarfs the life-sized spacecraft simulators inside.
Crew captains drew exam tasks listing various emergencies they will have to deal with during the simulation flight.
The tasks are coded, so only the examiners know which five kinds of space trouble the crews will be facing that day.
"The main emergency will be fire!" Valery Korzun, who oversees cosmonaut training at the facility, said after the main crew disappeared in the ISS simulator.
Cosmonauts never really flunk the tests - not after years of preparation.
"It's too late to be afraid of anything at this stage," Alexander Misurkin, one of the three members of Expedition 35/36, said before entering the imitation module.
Both teams passed the tests with flying colours, the Gagarin Center said.
The media was not allowed to observe exactly how they fought the mock fire and other space trouble.
The 35/36th ISS mission comprises two Russians - Misurkin, a space newbie, and Pavel Vinogradov, who completed two space flights - as well as US astronaut Christopher Cassidy, a former Navy SEAL who flew to the ISS on a Space Shuttle in 2009.
The mission is poised not just to test a new launch procedure, but also to break a record -- Vinogradov, expected to mark his 60th birthday Aug 31 in orbit, is on track to become the oldest Russian in space.
The record is currently held by Valery Ryumin, who flew in 1998 at the age of 58. Both he and Vinogradov still fall far short of the world record holder US astronaut John Glenn, who made his second and last trip to space in 1998 when he was 77 years old - 36 years after his first flight at the dawn of the space era.