Strapped in my cramped seat in the small cockpit next to my commander, I scan the instruments looking for trouble. There’s nothing obvious, but there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll have a failure, probably more than one. We only undocked a few minutes ago, and already we had to use a reserve procedure because the automatic undocking sequence never started. So, as we wait for the spacecraft to reorient itself in space, I check every parameter and mentally compare it with the numbers I have memorized, knowing that I’ll find something, hopefully before it’s too late. I hear the commander talking to Ground Control, because one of the infrared systems that provide the vertical indication to the main computer has failed. “Here we go”, I think, as I quickly reconfigure the system to use the spare one: but as soon as it goes in the loop it also fails. The commander will have to take manual control of the orientation.
In the meantime, I figure out what is wrong with the spacecraft: our pressure is constant, but the oxygen partial pressure is slowly increasing. It means two things: we have an oxygen leak somewhere, and we’re going to depressurize the spacecraft to avoid a potential fire. It also means that we need to stop the normal reentry, and we’re going to perform instead an emergency, “quick” descent.
That’s when I silently pray, probably like hundreds of astronauts since Alan Shepard’s first flight, “Luca, just don’t mess this up…”
The good thing is, we’re still safely on the ground, and we’re running a simulation. Just one of the many emergency sims that we go through while training for Expedition 36, planned for next year.
Having finished all the theory training on the Soyuz spacecraft systems, I’m now mostly working on four separate simulations.
The first kind, and the one that requires the most preparation, is the Soyuz “complex” training. Together with my commander, we go through all the different phases of the flight, from launch to docking and then from undocking to landing. Our instructors set up all kinds of possible emergencies, and the responsibility of the crew is to perform the correct actions in accordance with the board documentation. Sometimes however we have to rely solely on our knowledge of the systems, especially when we don’t have radio contact with the ground. Most of the actions are time critical, and require a strict coordination between the different members of the crew. I know at least 100 ways to mess things up, because I’ve done them all, and I’m counting on discovering at least another 1000 in the next year or so of simulations.
The second kind is the “rendezvous” training. In these simulations I sit in the top part of the Soyuz, and use a laser range finder to calculate our distance and closure to the ISS. The commander manually flies the spacecraft using the data that I feed him. The instructors can position us at various distances, and with different speeds. Sometime the velocity vector is really high, and if we don’t react fast there’s a risk of an unintentional contact with the Station, with disastrous consequences. This kind of simulation also requires a lot of discipline and coordination between the flight engineer and the commander. The instructors can add a laser range finder failure to the simulations, to make things more interesting: then I can help my commander by guesstimating the range using tables that I built in my checklist. My commander is very experienced, so I know that if I hear “спасибо (spasiba)” it means that my estimation was pretty accurate. If I don’t hear anything, well, probably not so accurate.
The third kind of simulation is the one I find the most challenging (meaning: thousands of ways to mess things up), and the most fun at the same time: “manual docking”. I perform these on my own, in the commander seat, and it’s as close as it gets to flying a spacecraft while staying on Earth. The concept is similar to the rendezvous, except that now my job is to take the Soyuz all the way to the assigned docking port, with very, very strict parameters. The interesting thing is that the target is moving, rotating on its three axes, and the flier has to manually match all the motions in order to dock. The other interesting thing is that we would only fly this approach in case of failure of the main computer, so we don’t have any data for range and speed: we have to calculate them ourselves, using the charts on our checklists, and do it real time while flying the Soyuz. Now see what I mean by challenging?
The instructors can also give us other failures, for example they can freeze the camera that we use for monitoring. The worst thing that can happen is an uncontrolled contact with the ISS. The instructors will calmly tell you: “No, you don’t want to do that”. But don’t ask me how I know this.
The last kind of simulation that I’m training with right now is the “manual landing”. I find these simulations also challenging (the aforementioned definition remains) and fun, and each one only lasts a few minutes, so they’re extremely dynamic.
In case of a major failure during the reentry phase, the crew still has the possibility to control the descent capsule, after separation, during the early atmospheric part of the descent. This training is also performed individually, from the commander’s seat. Using the Manual Control System interface, we can rotate the capsule, thus changing the lift factor of the descent module. However, the capsule flies like a brick, so it takes a little practice to understand how the spacecraft reacts to the manual inputs. The parameters to maintain are the G load and the landing location, but the variables are so many that no two reentries are the same. Initially, I kept either exceeding the G load or landing in an altogether different country, much to the instructor’s chagrin and/or amusement. But it’s getting better all the time.
In the next few weeks I will be working almost exclusively on these simulations, training with my crew. Then I will be going back to Houston and JSC for a whole different kind of training. But that’s another story, to be told next time.