Soyuz spacecraft carrying film crew docked at space station, not without problems

Soyuz MS-19 successfully docked with the International Space Station, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “Just like you trained for. You’ll be fine,” said Russian Mission Control Center (MCC-M).

At 4:55 a.m. EDT this morning, a Soyuz rocket, the crown jewel of Russia’s space program, launched the Soyuz MS-19 crew from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. Onboard was Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov and two cinema veterans – film director Klim Shipenko and actress Yulia Peresild.

About twenty-five minutes after launch, at 5:19 a.m. EDT, the spacecraft separated from its third stage and began deploying solar arrays. The crew successfully reached orbit.

A view of Earth from the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft after it reached orbit.
Oct. 5, 2021. (Image credit: NASA TV)

“We’re feeling great, everything’s working nominally” Soyuz commander Shklaperov reported.

But what would be a Soyuz mission without sending ground control into a panic? After completing a two-orbit trip around Earth, needed for catching up with the space station, the crew began to prepare for a smooth automated docking, courtesy of the soviet-era docking system KURS.

At around 8:11 a.m. EDT, the crew capsule began running into communications issues with the Russian Mission Control Center (MCC-M) while on approach. Thankfully, the communications blackout only lasted around 30 seconds but the problems didn’t stop here for the Soyuz crew.
Russian Mission Control Center (MCC-M) attempting to reach the Soyuz MS-19 crew during comms blackout.
Oct. 5, 2021 (Video Credit: NASA TV)

After getting back in touch with ground control, some recalibration with the automated docking navigation system, KURS, needed to be done. This was unsuccessful as MCC-M instructed the crew to switch over to manual controls moments later. This type of situation has not been uncommon with Soyuz modules recently.

Soyuz TMA-19M in 2015 and Soyuz MS-14 in 2019 both experienced similar KURS failures that required a manual docking approach. The uncrewed Soyuz MS-14 failure was so bad that the spacecraft was stranded outside the space station for two days before the ISS crew was able to figure out what to do with it.
Russian Mission Control Center (MCC-M) instructing to switch over to manual controls.
Oct. 5, 2021 (Video Credit: NASA TV)

After the initial automated attempt was aborted, Shklaperov took control of the Soyuz, backed it away from the station to assess the Soyuz’ systems, then re-approached the complex for the manual docking. “Do not even look at course. Just do it visually…everything visually,” MCC-M to the Soyuz commander. This is a pretty clear indication of just how bad the state of KURS was.
“Do not even look at course. Just do everything visually…” MCC-M to Soyuz commander.
Oct. 5, 2021 (Video Credit: NASA TV)

The crew was able to dock successfully with a port on the station’s Rassvet module at 8:22 a.m. EDT.

Despite the communications and docking navigation issues, Shklaperov docked the Soyuz spacecraft at its port to deliver Russian actress Yulia Peresild and film director Klim Shipenko just 10 minutes off schedule. The duo will film scenes for an upcoming space movie called “The Challenge” – a perfect epithet for their approach shortly ago.

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