Spacecraft docks at space station after delay of two days

AFP, MOSCOW

Sun, Mar 30, 2014 - Page 6

A Moscow-backed spacecraft carrying two Russians and a US astronaut on Friday docked successfully at the International Space Station (ISS) after a technical hitch caused an unprecedented two-day delay.

The Soyuz TMA-12M, carrying Russia’s Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev, and NASA’s Steve Swanson, docked at 3:53am Moscow time, Russia’s mission control said.

Hours after the successful docking, Russian state media reported that the head of Moscow’s mission control, Viktor Ivanov, had been sacked.

The RIA Novosti news agency cited a mission control source who said the sudden dismissal of Ivanov was not connected to the technical problem that forced the Soyuz’s crew to spend an extra two days in orbit before docking with the station.

The report gave no further explanation for the sacking.

Skvortsov was first to open the hatch into the ISS at about 7am Moscow time, hugging the crew members already on board and grinning broadly.

“That was fun... It’s a lot more spacious in here,” Skvortsov said in a video link-up from the ISS.

The trio were originally meant to dock early on Wednesday, just six hours after launch from Kazakhstan, but their Soyuz spacecraft suffered a technical glitch on its approach.

The spacecraft had to orbit the Earth 34 times before its rendezvous with the space laboratory, instead of the fast-track route of four orbits originally planned.

“It was a long two days, but we made it. Glad to be here,” Swanson said on a video link-up from the ISS.

The problem started once their Soyuz capsule was already in orbit and a thruster failed to fire.

US space agency NASA said in a statement that the Soyuz spacecraft “was unable to complete its third thruster burn to fine-tune its approach” to the ISS.

The Soyuz capsule instead was forced to make three manoeuvers in orbit to bring it on the correct trajectory.

The head of the Russian state firm Energia, which made the Soyuz rocket that propels the craft into space, said on Wednesday that the origin of the problem was not yet clear.

Vitaly Lopota told the Interfax news agency the problem could have been due to a mathematical error in determining at what altitude the thruster should fire.

A commission has been formed to pinpoint the cause of the problem.

The flight director for the Russian section of the ISS, Vladimir Solovyov, vowed on Friday to stay on the fast-track route it began using last year.

“We will continue to work according to this scheme. You can’t scare us off with just this one thing,” he said, as quoted by the ITAR-TASS news agency.

Soyuz’s onboard computers may be updated, he said.