Friday, December 23, 2011

Station Staffing Back To Six After Holiday Hook-Up

For the first time in almost four months, six astronauts and cosmonauts are aboard the International Space Station with eyes focused on a full resumption of science research.

Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko was the first to float through a hatch linking the station and the Soyuz spacecraft that he and two crewmates arrived in earlier today. U.S. astronaut Don Pettit floated over the threshold next, followed by Andre Kuipers of the European Space Agency.

They joined U.S. astronaut Dan Burbank and two Russian cosmonauts -- Anatoly Ivanishin and Anton Shkaplerov -- who boarded the outpost in late November.

"It's great to see all six of you guys on orbit," William Gerstenmaier, chief of NASA human exploration and mission operations, told the crews from the Russian Mission Control Center in Korolev outside Moscow. "I can't think of a prettier picture than having all six crewmembers back on the space station."

Station staffing for the most part has been halved since mid-September as a result of an investigation into an Aug. 24 Soyuz U rocket failure that destroyed a robotic Progress space freighter bound for the station with tons of supplies. The Soyuz FG rocket used to launch crews to the station has a third-stage engine identical to one blamed for the failure. So Soyuz FG launches were suspended until the completion of an investigation and return-to-flight activities.

A Soyuz 2.1b rocket failed earlier today after launch from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia. A third-stage failure was blamed. The Soyuz 2.1b rocket is equipped with a different third-stage engine. But the failure -- which is the latest in an embarrassing failures -- nonetheless is a bit unnerving.

U.S. officials said it is unclear whether the Soyuz 2.1b failure will prompt delays in station operations. Robotic Progress cargo carriers are set for launches on Jan. 25 and April 25. Fresh crews are training for launches in late March and late May, also.

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