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Integrating the MLM Nauka with ISS
To support the addition of the MLM Nauka module to the International Space Station, the Russian crew members aboard the outpost had to perform many chores preceding the docking of the 20-ton spacecraft, which would increase the size and mass of the Russian Segment by almost a third. Moreover, once the module is in place, Russian cosmonauts were expected to conduct up to 11 spacewalks to fully plug all the systems of the new room into their home in orbit. The total in-orbit time required to integrate Nauka was expected to reach 2,000 work hours!
A computer-generated visualization of the MLM module's arrival at the ISS.
Read our introductory article on the subject at:
The complex work to integrate Nauka with the rest of the station can be sub-divived into three major phases:
Due to multiple delays with the preparation of the MLM Nauka for launch during the 2010s, Roskosmos had to work on the "shifting sand" for a number of years constantly re-scheduling the complex process of integration of the module between different ISS flight manifests and from one ISS crew to another. Roskosmos officials also had to take into the account the changing situation on the Russian Segment, for example, the early 2016 decision to reduce the Russian crew aboard the outpost from three to two people due to financial problems.
The reduced crew allowed Russia to save one trip of the Progress cargo ship to the station every year. With three cosmonauts living on the ISS again, Russia would have to send four cargo ships to the station during that year.
On February 12, 2016, RKK Energia officially informed Roskosmos that a three-person Russian crew would be needed aboard the ISS ahead of the MLM arrival.
On September 7, 2016, the State Commission overseeing the project issued the official decision No. 280GK-16 mandating the increase of the Russian crew aboard the ISS back to three ahead of the arrival of the MLM module. At the time, MLM was scheduled for launch in December 2018.
The 2017 launch scenario
On September 22, 2017, RKK Energia also informed Roskosmos that four Progress cargo missions would have to be dispatched to the ISS during 2019, when the MLM was expected to reach the station.
At the time, the schedule prepared by RKK Energia pushed the launch of MLM Nauka to March 21, 2019. According to that plan, after a nine-day autonomous flight, the spacecraft would dock at the nadir (Earth-facing) docking port of the Zvezda Service Module, SM, a part of the Russian Segment of the station, on March 30, 2019.
According to the September 2017 draft documents, the preparations for the addition of the long-awaited module were scheduled to begin on September 8, 2018, with the launch of the three members of Expedition 57 crew aboard the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft. At the time, the launch was expected to mark the first time since October 2016 that a Soyuz would lift off with more than one Russian cosmonaut. Two Russian cosmonauts, a veteran Aleksei Ovchinin and a rookie Nikolay Tikhonov were to be onboard, according to that schedule. They were to be accompanied by NASA astronaut Nick Hague. The trio was to work on the station until Feb. 24, 2019, and would not actually see the Nauka at the station but would lay the ground work for its arrival.
The same plan also saw the launch of Soyuz MS-11 on November 7, 2018, with Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, US astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Canadian David Saint-Jacques onboard. On March 7, 2019, they would be joined in orbit by the crew of Soyuz MS-12 with a yet to be assigned pair of Russian cosmonauts and one US astronaut. These two crews, including three Russians, were to be onboard the ISS during the hectic operations to receive the Nauka.
According to the September 2017 timeline, when Proton rocket would launch the new module from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, its destination port on the Zvezda Service Module was expected to be occupied by the Pirs Docking Compartment, SO1, which has been located there since 2001. To discard the old module, it was to be undocked along with the Progress MS-10 spacecraft that would have been attached to its free docking port since October 2018. Because Progress vehicles has ability to maneuver, it was to be used to direct Pirs into the Earth's atmosphere to burn up.
According to the scenario considered around October 2017, the launch of the Prichal Node Module along with the Progress-MS-UM spacecraft was set for November 14, 2019. Two days later, the Progress/Node stack was to dock to the nadir (Earth-facing) port of the MLM Nauka module. Around a month later, the propulsion section of the Progress-MS-UM spacecraft was to separate from the Node, making it available for other ships visiting the ISS.
All these plans were yet to be approved by Roskosmos and the by the Russian government, but it had never materialized due to new lengthy delays with the launch of the module.
According to the plans formulated around October 2019 (Insider Content), the arrival of the MLM Nauka module to the ISS was expected in December 2020, during the 64th long-duration expedition aboard the ISS. This time, the responsibility to receive the module aboard the Russian Segment was fallen on three Russian crew members scheduled for launch aboard the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft on October 14, 2020. As of October 2019, the Soyuz MS-17 crew included the commander Anatoly Ivanishin, flight engineer Ivan Vagner and a yet-to-be selected cosmonaut.
Possibly, Roskosmos delayed the assignment of the third member of the Soyuz MS-17 crew in anticipation of more certainty with the MLM launch date.
Because the Nauka module was expected to replace the Pirs Docking Compartment, SO1, on the nadir port of the Zvezda Service Module, the cosmonauts planned to do a number of removals and re-arragnements aboard SO1 ahead of Nauka's arrival.
Following the docking of Nauka, the Soyuz MS-17 crew would open hatches into the newly arrived spacecraft, conduct its activation and unload the cargo hitchhiked to the station.
The 2020 timeline
The latest timeline, formulated in 2020 (Insider Content), called for the launch of the MLM module between the end of April and early July 2021. As in the previous incarnation of the schedule, the Progress MS-15 cargo ship would be utilized to discard the SO1 Pirs Docking Compartment to free the docking port for the MLM. It apparently became possible thanks to recent upgrades of the Progress series, allowing to extend its maximum flight duration from 200 to 370 days.
Testing of spacewalking techniques with a full-scale mockup of the MLM module and other components of the Russian Segment inside the renovated neutral byouncy facility of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in May 2020.
An isolated view of the Russian Segment after the addition of the MLM module. Credit: Roskosmos
The location of the MLM Nauka module on the Russian Segment of the ISS. Credit: Roskosmos
Russian cosmonauts will have to make 11 spacewalks to fully integrate the Nauka module. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos