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BepiColombo launches, Russia ponders next lift-off, and 50 years since Apollo 7 got its feet wet

The week in spaaaaaace

Roundup A mission to Mercury, a mission to save Apollo and a mission to save face?

Lift off for BepiColombo and into safe mode

An Ariane 5 sent ESA and JAXA's BepiColombo probe off on its seven-year jaunt to Mercury, launching on time at 0145 UTC on 20 October. The combination spacecraft, which is comprised of orbiters from ESA and JAXA, made contact via ESA's deep space tracking station in New Norcia, Western Australia, just over 30 minutes after launching to confirm that it had survived the process.

Images showing the extended solar arrays were a little late in arriving due to BepiColombo tripping itself into a safe mode. ESA downplayed the significance of the incident, describing it as a "reboot" although a similar restart upon arrival at Mercury would be less than ideal.

The spacecraft has a variety of safe modes and features a medium gain antenna (MGA) intended for use during the cruise to Mercury and during periods in safe mode. Two low gain antennas (LGA) are also fitted, and can also be used for emergency commanding.

Safe mode aside, the spacecraft appears to be in good health and the operations team will spend the next month checking out its systems. Hopefully without any more unexpected reboots.

Roskosmos exec: Three launches, and we'll stick a crew back on a Soyuz

Former cosmonaut and now executive director of human spaceflight Sergei Krikalev said last week that three successful launches "will be more than enough to put the next crew in space", according to a report in Russian mouthpiece Tass.

A malfunction on the Soyuz-FG rocket carrying two crew members for the International Space Station (ISS) led to an abort being called, and the Soyuz capsule flung on an alarming ballistic trajectory back to earth. The leading candidate for the failure is one of the side boosters reconnecting with the second stage of the rocket following separation. How that happened has yet to be determined.

Three successful launches, following the identification of the root cause of the incident, sounds like a reasonable plan. However, there remains little more than two months before the Soyuz currently attached to the ISS must return to Earth and abandon the station.

A glance at the launch manifest shows that Russia has four Soyuz rockets lined up. The problem is that they are not of the same type as the ill-fated booster used in the MS-10 mission. An uncrewed cargo freighter to the ISS, Progress 71, is due to launch atop a Soyuz 2 booster at the end do the month. A Russian navigation satellite, Glonass-M, and an Egyptian earth observation orbiter, EgyptSat-A, are also due to go up on separate Soyuz 2 rockets in November. Finally Metop-C is scheduled for launch on a Soyuz 2 ST from Kourou.

To be fair, the two Soyuz variants are very similar in the key area of the attachment of the four side boosters. In addition, Russia does plan to phase out the Soyuz FG in favour of the Soyuz 2 for crewed missions. Whether it can persuade NASA that sticking a crew on top of the rocket is OK after showing that a different version of the same rocket failed to blow-up will depend on the results of the investigation.

More Soyuz fallout

Two casualties of the Soyuz failure are a United Arab Emirates (UAE) cosmonaut and a spacewalk to determine the cause of a hole in the on-orbit Soyuz lifeboat.

The UAE cosmonaut was due to fly in the spare seat of Soyuz MS-12 next April, along with Russian Oleg Skripochka and NASA astronaut Christina Hammock. However, the MS-10 incident has messed up crew rotation plans, to say the least. The UAE flyer was scheduled to return with the MS-10 crew (who launched with an empty seat). This obviously will not happen now, since MS-10 is very much grounded.

The impromptu spacewalk to look at the exterior of the Soyuz attached to the ISS – the one with the hole – has also been put on ice. An investigation continues on the ground into who drilled what, from where and when, and Russian officials have suggested that maybe a poorly astro got a bit handy with the power tools.

Russia has not given up on the idea of a spacewalk, insisting it is merely postponed until December when the next crew is scheduled to arrive.

Schirra's Space

Today marks 50 years since the successful return to Earth of Apollo 7. Commanded by Wally Schirra, the only astronaut to have flown on Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, the mission lasted over 10 days and was a shakedown of the Apollo command and service modules in Earth orbit following the disaster of Apollo 1 the previous year.

Apollo 7 launched on a Saturn 1B from Cape Canaveral's LC-34, and was the last time the launchpad was used. NASA toyed with the idea of using it for missions to Skylab but instead adapted LC-39B with a "milk stool"’ to launch the 1B to NASA's space station.

The Saturn 1B did not carry a lunar module (even though Apollo 7 had a Lunar Module Pilot in the form of Walt Cunningham) but the discarded S-IVB stage did contain a docking target for rendezvous practice. In the event, the panels of the S-IVB did not separate properly, with one hanging at a 45-degree angle, which would have made extraction of a lunar module problematic. Later versions would simply jettison the panels.

While a complete success, Apollo 7 is infamous for its grumpy crew. Compared to previous spacecraft, the larger interior led to signs of crew motion sickness (which became a more serious issue on later flights). In addition, Schirra developed a head cold and became progressively terser in his exchanges with Mission Control.

The book, Schirra's Space, written before his death in 2007, is well worth a read and gives an insight into the stresses of the mission and the era. Mission Control, however, was not so sympathetic. While Schirra had planned to retire from the astronaut corps, his two fellow crew members never flew in space again. Walt Cunningham retired from NASA in 1971 after a stint heading up the Skylab branch of the astronaut office and Donn Eisle left in 1970, having served as back-up Command Module Pilot for Apollo 10. ®

Apollo 7 successfully demonstrated that NASA's ship could function in space. It would be Apollo 8, a few months later, that would take it around the Moon. ®

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