The limb of Earth intersects one of two Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.
A Soyuz space capsule took the first crew to the International Space Station in November 2000. Since that time, at least one Soyuz has always been at the Station, generally to serve as a lifeboat should the crew have to return to Earth unexpectedly. After the Columbia accident in February 2003, the Soyuz TMA became the means of transportation for crew members going to or returning from the orbiting laboratory.
The Soyuz spacecraft is launched to the Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz rocket.
Once the Soyuz reaches orbit, it spends two days chasing the Station. The crew performs systems checks and keeps in touch with controllers at the Russian Mission Control Center during that time.
At the Integration Facility at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Soyuz TMA-08M spacecraft stands ready to be moved into place for its encapsulation into the third stage of a Soyuz booster rocket. Image Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov
Before the final rendezvous phase, the crewmembers put on pressurized suits and then monitor the automated docking sequence.
The rendezvous and docking are both automated, but the Soyuz crew has the capability to manually intervene or execute these operations. Once docking is complete, the crew members equalize the air pressure of the Soyuz with the Station before opening the hatches.
At least one Russian Soyuz spacecraft is always docked to the Space Station. In addition, there is usually a Progress supply vehicle docked and sometimes a Space Shuttle as well. The Station is well supplied with docking ports for all three types of vehicles.
Up to three crew members can launch and return to Earth from the Station aboard a Soyuz TMA spacecraft. The vehicle lands on the flat steppes of Kazakhstan in central Asia.
A Soyuz trip to the station takes two days from launch to docking, but the return to Earth takes less than 3.5 hours.