“We called earlier today, but you weren’t in”

It is one of the banes of modern life. You live slightly off the beaten track, order in the occasional big delivery of food and other essentials so you don’t have to traipse over to the supermarket every time. You wait diligently for the arrival of the goods and see the truck glide happilly by on the other side of the street, never to see you. Later a call comes through asking if you want another attempt to correct for your oversight…

Yesterday, the diligent watchers were the Expedition 24 crew of the International Space Station and the truck was the Progress 38 unmanned vehicle, carrying 2.5 tons of food, water, fuel and equipment. Not only were the crew sat by the door, waiting the arrival of the metal hulk that also serves as an additional ISS engine and an incinerator for rubbish as it leaves, having deposited its stuff, and burns up in the atmosphere, but many people sat at home watching on NASA TV were with them in spirit. Waiting for those last few moments as Progress glides in to meet with the station.

The trouble is as the time ticked towards the 17:58 BST expected docking point, ground control for Progress in Russia had noticed that the ISS lost telemetry (contact) with their charge at 17:30. Losing contact with the Progress-ISS KURS automatic docking radar systems meant there was no way to reach the Russian Zvezda module. The station crew, who were unable to operate the manual TORU docking system in time, saw the freighter instead rotating and eventually making for the horizon, passing by the ISS at a distance of three kilometres at closest approach before heading off ahead of it and increasing the distance. By the time I watched the robotic delivery man passing over Kendal, it was a good distance ahead of the much brighter ISS, both playing hide and seek in thick cloud six hours and ten minutes after the drama.

It was immediately clear after the event that both the station and the Progress vehicle were safe. Just not docked. Discussions are being carried out between Russian and NASA managers this morning to decide on the next move. A new docking time of 17:17 BST on the 4th of July (cargo borne on the fourth of July?) has been penciled in. Updates can be found on NASA’s twitter account. Reports of the event are carried on the BBC, Spaceflight Now and Florida Today. It should be pointed out that this is one of many unmanned resupply missions including a variety of vehicles, they normally go relatively smoothly, but unlike this one, they normally stop smoothly too…

None of this has put off ESA and the Canadian Space Agency pushing preliminary talks with Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, to buy additional seats on Soyuz spacecraft to get a bit more time on the ISS in the coming years. The main sticking points at the moment are money – this would be a package deal with food and accommodation included, rather than the no frills deal that puts people on long haul ISS missions – and the ability of Roscosmos to get the capital in place to put on a fifth flight in each of the years concerned.

Still, the rewards for those that go are multitude. You can end up standing in the garden of a school in the middle of a world tour posing with a copy of Astronomy Now, like this guy. Or maybe even participate in the filming of the Sky at Night, like two of that last guy’s colleagues, pictured here with Sir Patrick Moore, all of who flew possibly the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis, STS-132.


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