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Soyuz TMA-15M launches international air force crew to space station

Soyuz TMA-15M for the International Space Station from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)
Nov. 23, 2014

— Following a flight path symbolized on the patch sewn on their spacesuits, three new crew members for the International Space Station lifted off Sunday (Nov. 23) for a five-and-a-half-month mission aboard the orbiting outpost.

Roscosmos cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, NASA's Terry Virts and Samantha Cristoforetti with the European Space Agency (ESA) launched aboard Russia's Soyuz TMA-15M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The multi-national crew took flight at 4:01 p.m. EST (2101 GMT or 3:01 a.m. local Kazakh time, Nov. 24) on a six-hour, four-orbit rendezvous with the space station.

Reaching space nine minutes after their Soyuz-FG rocket blasted off the Earth, a small doll of the Disney "Frozen" snowman Olaf began to float inside the capsule, signaling the crew safely made it to orbit.

Set to arrive at the space station on Sunday at 9:50 p.m. EST (0250 GMT), Shkaplerov, Virts, and Cristoforetti will join the Expedition 42 crew commanded by Barry "Butch" Wilmore of NASA with Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova of Roscosmos, who have been aboard the station since late September.


: Soyuz TMA-15M docked to the station's Rassvet module Sunday (Nov. 23) at 9:48 p.m. EST (0248 GMT).

The Soyuz TMA-15M crew members, Samantha Cristoforetti (top), Terry Virts (middle), and Anton Shkaplerov wave before boarding their spacecraft at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. (Roscosmos)

Command of the space station will pass to Virts in March, as Wilmore, Samokutyaev and Serova return to Earth on Soyuz TMA-14M.

As members of the Expedition 43 crew, Virts, Shkaplerov and Cristoforetti will remain on the station through May 2015, to be joined by another three-person crew on Soyuz TMA-16M soon after the prior trio departs. Among their new crewmates will be Roscosmos cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Korniyenko, as well as NASA's Scott Kelly. The arrival of the latter two will mark the start of the station's first yearlong expedition, as Korniyenko and Kelly set out to gather medical data to support longer crewed flights out into the solar system.

Shared shadow

"We are a little bit of a unique crew because we are all Air Force and that theme got reflected in our Soyuz patch," Virts said, describing the TMA-15M mission insignia.

The Soyuz TMA-15M patch is based on the shape and features of an aircraft's attitude indicator or artificial horizon. (Roscosmos)

The circular patch, which they each wore sewn to the right shoulder of their Russian Sokol pressure suits for launch, was based on the shape of an aircraft attitude indicator, or artificial horizon. Shkaplerov came up with the basic idea for the patch design, working Virts and Cristoforetti as well as cosmonaut Andrei Babkin and artist Riccardo Rossi.

"It's basically the artificial horizon, which is the instrument you have as a pilot in your cockpit, and that was really the basic idea that Anton, himself, came up with," Cristoforetti said. "It shows the pitch of the aircraft if you were reading it as an artificial horizon of 51, which is the inclination of the [space station's] orbit, and then it shows a banking or roll of 15, which is [for] TMA-15M."

Centered on the patch is an image of the Soyuz, its gold solar arrays doubling as the horizontal lines on the attitude indicator. The spaceship's shadow on the Earth represents the crew's shared flight history.

"The shadow is in the shape of the spaceship but it also made out of three planes," Shkaplerov described. "First, the front section is the F-16, which is Terry's; the second is mine and the third is Samantha's. And this symbolizes our joint efforts in this mission."

Expedition 42/43 crew members Terry Virts of NASA (left), Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos (center), and Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency (right). (NASA/Victor Ivanov)

"My Air Force background was F-16 [jets] in the U.S. Air Force," Virts added. "Anton's time was as a MiG-29 pilot in the Russian Air Force, and Samantha started her career in Texas at Sheppard Air Force Base and then flew AMX [fighter bombers] in the Italian Air Force."

"The shadow's made from different parts of our respective aircraft," Cristoforetti said. "We really wanted to symbolize the continuance between aviation and spaceflight."

First in flight

The Soyuz TMA-15M launch marked the beginning of both Shkaplerov's and Virts' second spaceflights.

Shkaplerov served on the station's Expedition 29/30 crew from November 2011 through April 2012. Virts helped to install the outpost's multi-windowed Cupola as the pilot of space shuttle Endeavour's two-week STS-130 mission in February 2010.

ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti with Lavazza and Argotec's ISSpresso coffee machine for the space station. (Argotec)

Cristoforetti, who became an ESA astronaut in 2009, has now become the first Italian woman to fly in space.

"I know for myself that I have done nothing special to be the first Italian woman to fly to space. I just wanted to fly to space and I happen to be the first," Cristoforetti said. "I understand, of course, this may well have a significance for people and could be an inspiration for woman in Italy and Europe. Obviously, I am very happy about that."

Cristoforetti may also set another Italian first, drinking the first Italian espresso brewed in space — if a supply ship arrives in time before she returns to Earth in May. Slated to launch on an Orbital Sciences' commercial cargo ship in April, the Lavazza ISSpresso is the first coffee machine designed for use in orbit.

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Soyuz TMA-15M launches to ISS

Video credit: NASA