Paolo and crew pass their final exams

3 December 2010

It was a good result: 4.8 out of 5. ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli and his crewmates passed two major exams last week in Moscow. They are now cleared for launch on 15 December on their six-month mission to the Space Station.

Training for a long space mission takes about two and a half years. And just like any school, cosmonaut school ends with final exams. The trainers test if each astronaut and the whole crew are ready for flight and completely familiar with the International Space Station (ISS) and the Soyuz ferry.

It is a critical moment for the crew: if they do not pass the exams, they do not fly. If they pass, it is time to say goodbye to their instructors in Star City.

The risk of failure is real, so the astronauts spent the last days before the tests reading and going through the procedures. They must know exactly what to do in every situation and which buttons to press when needed.

Prepare for the worst

Inside the Soyuz during a simulation

On the first exam day, Thursday 25 November, the Expedition 26 crew of Paolo Nespoli, Dmitri Kondratyev and Catherine Coleman boarded the Soyuz simulator under the watchful eyes of the Interdepartmental Qualification Commission.

The exam focused on their ability to work as a single crew. They were put through their paces on all phases of the flight to and from the Station, including launch, separation, ISS rendezvous, approach and docking, undocking, descent and landing.

Paolo signing the selected envelope

Following tradition, crew commander Kondratyev began by picking one of several sealed envelopes spread on a table. All the crew signed it, and the envelope was handed over to the Chairman of the Commission.

About 80% of the training is about emergency procedures and safety measures, so the crew was not surprised when their simulated mission developed five emergencies – as listed in the sealed envelope.

After experiencing a nightmare flight with failure of the automatic separation sequence after Soyuz orbital injection, cabin depressurisation and an emergency deorbit manoeuvre, the real mission will likely be routine.

Excellent ratings

The Commission
The Commission

The crew was awarded an overall rating of 4.8 out of 5.0. The three individual exams earlier saw Paolo achieve a perfect score for rendezvous manoeuvring, station flyby and docking, and manual descent. The last one was a spectacular simulation carried out in the giant centrifuge of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre.

The next day, the crew faced a similar simulation in the ISS mockup. At the same time, the backup crew did the exams in reverse order.

Signing the guest book in Gagarin's office

As Friday ended, the crew emerged from the simulator tired, stiff and sweating. After a quick change of clothes, they had to appear once again before the Commission: they were cleared for flight.

Paolo and his crewmates will fly down to Baikonur Cosmodrome on Friday, to be ready for the launch on 15 December at 20:09 CET (19:09 GMT) and the beginning of their six-month stay on the ISS and ESA’s MagISStra mission.

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