Launcher for next space station crew in position for liftoff Friday

A Russian Soyuz rocket made a railroad journey Wednesday to its launch pad in Kazakhstan, two days before blastoff with a crew of three spaceflight veterans from the United States, Italy and Russia heading for the International Space Station.

The three-stage rocket departed an assembly building just after sunrise Wednesday on a special rail car for the journey to Launch Pad No. 1, the same mount from which Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin launched on the first piloted space mission in April 1961.

A hydraulic lift raised the Soyuz vertical before swing arms moved into place around the rocket. The launch structure containing the Soyuz booster then rotated to align with the planned launch azimuth.

Friday’s liftoff is scheduled for 1541 GMT (11:41 a.m. EDT; 9:41 p.m. Baikonur time). The three-man crew inside the Soyuz MS-05 capsule will head into orbit on a fast-track pursuit of the space station, with docking set for approximately 2200 GMT (6 p.m. EDT) with the research outpost’s Rassvet module.

Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy, 42, will occupy the Soyuz spacecraft’s center seat during Friday’s launch and docking. The Soyuz commander, a biochemist with a career in space medicine before his selection as a cosmonaut in 2003, is making his second trip to the space station after spending 166 days in orbit as a flight engineer on the Expedition 37 and 38 crews.

NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik will be the Soyuz MS-05 spaceship’s board engineer, assisting Ryazanskiy with cockpit duties during the six-hour voyage from liftoff to docking. The 49-year-old retired Marine Corps fighter pilot hails from Santa Monica, California, and logged nearly 11 days in orbit aboard the space shuttle Atlantis on a 2009 mission to the space station.

Bresnik will take command of the station’s Expedition 53 crew in September.

European Space Agency flight engineer Paolo Nespoli has 174 days of space experience on two previous missions, including a flight on the shuttle Discovery in 2007 and a long-duration stay on the space station in 2010 and 2011. Nespoli, 60, is a native of Milan and was a special forces operator in the Italian Army before working on several European space projects as an engineer.

Paolo Nespoli, Sergey Ryazanskiy and Randy Bresnik (left to right) pose for a photo during training in Star City, Russia. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The trio will become part of the space station’s Expedition 52 and 53 crews, joining commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineers Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer on the orbiting complex. Yurchikhin, Whitson and Fischer are due to depart the station and return to Earth on Sept. 2, and three fresh crew members will launch on the next Soyuz spaceship from Baikonur on Sept. 12.

The space station has been flying with a three-person crew since early June, and Friday’s docking will boost the outpost’s occupancy back to six.

Yurchikhin and Ryazanskiy will conduct a spacewalk Aug. 17 to deploy several small satellites and work outside the Russian segment of the station.

A SpaceX Dragon supply ship launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is expected to arrive at the complex the same week, but its liftoff will have to work around the scheduled Russian spacewalk. Station managers want to ensure the satellites released by the Russian spacewalkers are accurately tracked before committing the Dragon cargo freighter to approach the outpost, minimizing the chance for a collision with one of the small craft.

The Dragon capsule is currently set to launch around Aug. 14, but if it slips more than a day or two, the launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket could be further delayed until officials are sure the small satellites are well away from the space station. A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket is also expected to launch the same week, potentially complicating bookings on the U.S. Air Force’s Eastern Range, which is responsible for flight safety, communications and tracking support for all missions from Cape Canaveral.

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