First video still from docking port. Credits: ESA

Luca’s perspective on the arrival of ATV-4.

Welcome aboard Albert Einstein! Once again, ESA’s spacecraft, the flagship of the International Space Station’s cargo fleet, behaved perfectly, arriving at the station with no problems at all.

Our European engineers, working for many years on the ATV project (Automated Transfer Vehicle) manage to make the extremely complex look easy : a spaceship carrying more than 7 tonnes of material, gas, water and experiments is put in orbit, travels millions of kilometres and then docks autonomously with an accuracy of 1 centimetre!

During the last hours of ATV’s approach and docking, I was responsible for monitoring all onboard systems together with fellow cosmonaut Alexander “Sasha” Misurkin. To learn more about why this task is necessary and about the difficulties that may arise, read my earlier post in the Shenanigans09 blog.

ATV-4 is now ‘parked’ at the back of the International Space Station where docking occurred. It is perfectly stable and receives power from the Station to keep its instruments running. Inside, all the lights are still out.

ATV-4 firing thrusters approaching S3 hold point. Credits: NASA

On Monday morning, Sasha and I will open the hatch that connects to the Station for the first time and a long configuration will start. I will be the first to enter ATV-4, initially with goggles and mask, to avoid the possibility of coming into contact with dust or any other any agent that may be hazardous. I will switch the lights on for the first time and then, with Alexander’s help, I will install an atmosphere purification system. Once we have removed any doubt of possible contamination from dust or other harmful substances, we will start shifting cargo from ATV-4 to the Station. All crew members will be involved in this but I will be in charge of operations (the so-called Loadmaster). It might seem like a simple task but it involves a very precise choreography that must be followed to perfection because in the case of an emergency, ATV-4 must be able to undock at any time. If that were to happen we need to know where everything is. In addition, unloading must be done in a certain way to keep the centre of gravity stable so calculations made by specialists on the ground remain correct .

Another reason why unloading operations are complicated is because of weightlessness. Whereas carrying heavy goods does not require as much effort as it does on Earth, installing them presents unexpected difficulties. It is very easy to lose track of what has been moved and where it has been placed since nothing stays in place if not tied down. All containers look very similar and they can only be distinguished by a code so it is easy confuse them. Finally, it is true that on the International Space Station we are weightless but as I explained in a previous entry, our mass is always with us and when we add the mass of other objects, sometimes very large ones, our problems become accentuated (I dare not imagine what would happen if I lost control …).

Astronaut food. Credits: ESA/Argotec

My colleagues and I are committed to do our very best and we are looking forward to start work: apart from the experiments, oxygen and water, ATV-4 also brings personal clothing and food, among which of course the culinary art of Italian cuisine will be a cherry on the cake. There is nothing like the promise of an Italian dinner that I will offer from my personal supply to entice my colleagues to work quickly and well!