- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 28, 2009

KOROLYOV, RUSSIA (AP) - A Russian cosmonaut steered a Soyuz capsule carrying U.S. billionaire tourist Charles Simonyi into a successful docking at the international space station Saturday after sensors showed a last-minute problem with one of the capsule’s engines.

Russian engineers played down the decision to dock manually, but the incident raised questions about Russia’s otherwise famously reliable spacecraft.

Vladimir Solovyov, flight director for the Russian space agency Roscosmos, said an autopilot signal went off just a few minutes before the docking time showing that one of Soyuz engines might have failed.

Cosmonaut Gennady Padalka then reported that the engines were operating normally and he took manual control of the capsule to keep an emergency computer program from thrusting the engines and sending it backing away from the station.

“We took the decision not to allow that,” Solovyov told a news conference at Russia’s mission control in Korolyov, on Moscow’s outskirts.

“We have to figure out what happened,” he said.

The docking by Padalka appeared otherwise smooth and was slightly ahead of schedule, roughly two days after the capsule blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan’s barren steppe. Applause broke out among space officials and crew relatives gathered at mission control after the hookup was announced.

Cosmonauts typically receive extensive training in the event that Soyuz’s autopilot fails or some other problem pops up.

“Everyone worked wonderfully, on the ground and on the space craft. There were no uncontrolled situations,” said Vitaly Lopota, chief engineer with Soyuz manufacturer RKK Energia.

The crews of the capsule and the station were to spend around three hours checking seals and instruments before opening the air locks and meeting up face-to-face.

Padalka and U.S. astronaut Michael Barratt will join the station’s current crew, while Simonyi, who is making his second trip as a paying customer to the space station, returns to Earth on April 7 along with cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov and NASA astronaut Michael Fincke.

Simonyi, a Hungarian-born software designer who helped build software for Microsoft Corp., is expected to be the last paying customer to travel aboard Russian spacecraft to the station for the foreseeable future since the station’s permanent crew is expanding from three to six.

Simonyi plans on conducting medical and radiation experiments and chatting with schoolchildren via ham radio and with his family via video stream during his tenure on the station.

The three Soyuz crew arrived just three days after the departure of the U.S. space shuttle Discovery, following a 13-day mission of which the highlight was the successful installation and unfurling of the station’s last pair of solar wings.

The touchdown of the Discovery and its crew was scheduled for late Saturday at NASA’s spaceport.


On the Net:

NASA Web site: https://spaceflight.nasa.gov

Roscosmos Web site: https://www.roscosmos.ru

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