Shortly after its launch on March 26, 2014, an anomaly was discovered with the Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft when the rocket's software failed to execute the orbital burns that would allow it to rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station (ISS).
It wasn't clear initially what had occurred or how serious it was to the mission that was carrying three new Expedition 39 crewmembers to the ISS.
The problem remained unsolved during the first six Soyuz orbits around the Earth. Russian space flight officials then asked NASA to join the effort to determine where the Soyuz was and establish emergency two-way communication between the spacecraft's crew and mission control in Moscow, according to Mark Severance, director of NASA's Human Spaceflight Network at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
NASA facilities, including the Flight Dynamics Facility at Goddard, the Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., the White Sands Ground Terminal in White Sands, N.M., and NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif. worked together to help facilitate a solution, Severance said.
"We have an emergency capability to patch [mission control in] Moscow into our ground stations and allow them to have two-way communication with the crew, and that was the scenario we were in," Severance explained. "The rendezvous burns were not executed for the Soyuz at the expected time. Because of that we were unsure of the orbit the Soyuz was in."
Mission control centers in Moscow and Houston wanted to ensure they knew where the Soyuz was along its planned orbit, he added. A call also was placed to the Morrell Operations Center at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., to assist with coordinating radar support and to help track the Soyuz.
The Flight Dynamics Facility was able to update the orbital information that was then used to determine where to point communication antennas. The operations center coordinated its the radars with those at Armstrong, Wallops and Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, he said.
"Soyuz 38-S's third and fourth burns in that sequence couldn't be executed because the spacecraft was not in the proper orientation for the third burn," Severance explained. "We didn't understand why, and neither did Moscow. Folks at the MCC (mission control center) in Moscow, through MCC Houston, requested ground support. They wanted to have additional communication support as the Soyuz passed out of range of the Russian ground stations."
Challenges with establishing communication with the Soyuz initially made the spacecraft's last pass over Armstrong critical, but communications were established during the 13th orbit using NASA Armstrong's emergency capabilities.
"Armstrong provided the first radar contact and was with us the entire night. They also supported from their VHF communications station and on the 13th orbit they provided two-way communication between the Soyuz and MCC Moscow," Severance continued.
That information was enough to develop a new plan to get the crew to the ISS. The remaining question was how severe the problem was that caused the rocket thrusters not to fire properly. Radar tracking concluded the third and fourth thruster burns were successful.
"The situation was under control after the Russian ground station talked to the Soyuz crew through us," said Mike Yettaw, NASA Armstrong's communications facility work lead.
If communications had not been established, the Soyuz crew had provisions on board and could continue to orbit, but that option became unnecessary. In fact, until a year ago Soyuz trips from launch to the ISS were amended from a two-day journey to the current set of procedures where the Soyuz safely reaches its destination in about six hours.
The systems used during this challenge originated during the days when the Russian Space Station Mir operated and Yettaw and Severance first worked together in the 1990s.
"This is an emergency capability we have maintained for exactly this kind of scenario," Severance said. "It turns out that the problem that caused this was a software problem. It could have been much worse. It's nice to know the safety net that we have for the crews, if they are encountering difficulties with the Soyuz, worked pretty well. This is a scenario we have talked about for years. On that night we had to execute it."
The mission challenges also provided learning opportunities for the communications teams during a follow-up lessons learned meeting in April. That meeting helped determine new tracking methods to find a spacecraft sooner under similar circumstances, Yettaw said.
NASA Armstrong's Hugh L. Dryden Aeronautical Test Range, a contingency site for communications and tracking for the ISS and Soyuz, was prepared for the challenge.
"Technicians Tim Miller and Brady Rennie were operating the radar, which was critical in determining where the spacecraft was," said Yettaw. "With the correct location determined, the Armstrong VHF communications system operated by technicians Justin Thomas and Jovani Bautista acquired and established communications with the Soyuz spacecraft. The Russian ground station was able to work the problem through the Armstrong VHF communications system. The Armstrong system was ultimately the only communications system used by the network during the contingency," Yettaw said.
The Soyuz event was the third major situation where Armstrong supported contingencies in space.
"The first time we assisted was in July 1997 when, in the aftermath of the collision of an unmanned Progress cargo vehicle with the Mir, the space station lost the gyros that kept the stations solar panels pointed at the sun and the station's batteries quickly ran down," Yettaw explained. "The cosmonauts entered the Soyuz return vehicle to manually orient the Mir using the thrusters on the Soyuz in order to point the station's solar panels at the sun.
But communications assistance was still needed.
"Russian mission control asked for additional communication through the American stations to save the Mir," Yettaw said. "Armstrong provided emergency communications to the Soyuz on two orbits and on the third the Mir electrical system was back on line, allowing the cosmonauts to re-establish communications with Moscow from inside the station using the ground stations at Armstrong and Wallops. At the time, Armstrong was the only American ground station to support communication with the Soyuz."
Another instance was in 2002.
"The ISS lost attitude control causing a slow roll, which started to drain the batteries," Yettaw recalled. "[Mission control in] Houston was able to uplink emergency instructions through Armstrong, which stabilized the station until the attitude system could be restored. Houston had the astronauts manually point the ISS solar panels at the sun by looking out a window of the ISS."
No matter what the next emergency might be, Yettaw said NASA Armstrong's communications staff and facilities would be ready to assist.
NASA photos by Tom Tschida & Joel Kowsky
Jay Levine, editor, the X-Press
NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center