Soyuz Launch Failure Leaves ISS Program in a Lurch, Spotlights Commercial Crew Delays

Astronaut Nick Hague (left) and Roscosmos General Director Dmitry Rogozin. (Credit: Roscosmos)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It was bound to happen eventually.

At some point, the serious quality control issues that have caused an embarrassing series of Russian launch failures in recent years were bound to impact the nation’s effort to keep the International Space Station supplied with a steady stream of Russian and international crews.

And it was likely, but not inevitable, that any failure would shine a harsh spotlight on NASA’s lagging effort to replace the space shuttle, which was retired more than seven years ago. Underfunded by an indifferent Congress and plagued by years of technical problems and schedule delays, the agency’s Commercial Crew Program is still many months away from fielding a spacecraft capable of carrying a crew to the station.

On Wednesday, a malfunctioning Soyuz booster put a premature end to a planned six-month stay on the station for American astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin. The good news is they are safe and in good shape after their Soyuz MS-10 made an emergency landing in Kazakhstan. They reportedly experienced 6 to 7 times the force of gravity during a ballistic descent.

It was the first abort of a crewed Soyuz since 1983 and only the third failed launch attempt in the program’s history, which goes back to 1967. Russia has suspended future crew launches pending an investigation into the accident, which appeared to have occurred during the separation of four first-stage booster rockets.

The three-member crew aboard the International Space Station — NASA’s Serena Auñón-Chancellor, ESA’s Alexander Gerst and Roscosmos’ Sergey Prokopyev — are in no danger. They had been set to return to Earth on Dec. 13.

A week later on Dec. 20, a new crew consisting of American Anne McClain, Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques and Oleg Kononenko were scheduled to join Hague and Ovchinin aboard the space station.

In order to avoid leaving the station unattended, the order of flights will need to be reversed. Whether that will be possible depends upon the length of the investigation and what changes might be required to avoid a repeat of today’s failure.

Time is short. The current ISS crew, which launched on June 6, cannot remain aboard the space station indefinitely. Their Soyuz spacecraft has a safe on-orbit life of about six months. (Update: NASA said today the vehicle is certified to remain at the station until Jan. 4.)

While NASA failure investigations often stretch on for months, Russian inquiries tend to be shorter. It’s possible the Soyuz launcher could return to flight by December with little or no disruption in the flight schedule.

However, the investigation could take longer because the failure occurred on a crew flight. Russia is also investigating a mysterious hole that was drilled in the orbital module of a Soyuz transport that caused an air leak on the space station. The hole was patched and did not pose a serious threat to the crew on board.

Crew Dragon undergoes tests at Plum Brook. (Credit: SpaceX)

The launch failure, which occurred as NASA marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 7, comes as the America space agency is preparing for the first flight tests of commercial crew vehicles being developed by SpaceX and Boeing. The current schedule of flight tests to the space station is:

  • SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-1 (uncrewed): January 2019
  • Boeing Starliner Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): March 2019
  • SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-2 (crewed): June 2019
  • Boeing Starliner Flight Test (crewed): August 2019.

Each vehicle will need to be certified to carry crews on a commercial basis. That process is expected to take several months after the crewed flight tests. However, NASA and Boeing have been discussing extending the first Starliner crewed flight scheduled for August into a months-long stay aboard ISS.

The schedules for both vehicles have been slipping for years; additional delays are likely. It’s not clear whether the schedules can be accelerated and what risks that might entail.

NASA’s new administrator, Jim Bridenstine, was at the Baikonur Cosmodrome to witness the launch accompanied by Roscosmos General Director Dmitry Rogozin. Bridenstine could be called upon to make some difficult decisions in the days and months ahead.

Rogozin is also relatively new on the job, having taken over the state space corporation earlier this year. In his previous post as deputy prime minister, Rogozin had overseen the defense and space sectors. One of his priorities had been to improve quality control in the Russian space program and put an end to a series of annual launch failures that now stretches back to 2004.

The launch abort on Wednesday is a vivid reminder that his work remains unfinished.

  • Robert G. Oler

    its time to cancel SLS and divert the money and effort to other things…

    well written Doug

  • SamuelRoman13

    They will have to abandon ISS when the time limits on Soyuz runs out I think.

  • newpapyrus

    The annual– under funding– of both the Commercial Crew Program and the SLS program is the primary cause of the delays. Annually under funding a rocket development program also cost a lot more in the long run.

    Marcel

  • envy

    They will have another Soyuz ready before then. If it’s not cleared to launch crew they could send it uncrewed and keep the current crew on ISS for a while.

  • windbourne

    I would agree that Commercial Crew has been underfunded, but SLS? You have to be kidding? They had most of the R&D done and it still costs a great deal more than the shuttle, saturn, etc.

  • nathankoren

    Good grief, they must’ve really landed in the sticks. Is that a CRT?!? Haven’t seen one of those in years.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    Come on Marcel, you know that SLS/Orion has enjoyed over funding, even at the expense of the Commercial Crew Program. Perhaps it is time for NASA to pull some early days SpaceX 60 and 80 hour work weeks to get their paper work done.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    There was a back up crew training with this crew, too. So, the only hold up is the booster which the
    Russians may test it on a Progress cargo launch.

  • duheagle

    Soyuzes always land in the sticks. Just a different set of sticks than usual this time. Russia is sort of the opposite of impulsive when it comes to technology. If it ain’t broke, they keep using it. Rockets at Baikonur are pushed out to their launch pads by diesel locomotives originally built in the U.S. and sent to the then Soviet Union under FDR’s Lend Lease program during WW2.

  • Paul_Scutts

    Yes, real problems of both Russian and American making. Shuttle retired without an operational replacement, Dragon 2 deliberately being held back to make Boeing look competent, Russians have serious issues with quality control and possible targeting due to internal/external misbehaviour of Putin regime. The whole show’s a mess and “the chickens have come home to roost, Bobbie Bushay”. Alright Jim & Co., time to earn your pay.

  • windbourne

    wow. no way.
    Lend Lease program? Ancient times.

  • envy

    You’re grossly underestimating how much the Shuttle and Saturn programs cost. Shuttle upgrades were an ongoing annual cost that was nearly as much as SLS development, but through the entire 30 years of the program.

    SLS is only absurdly expensive compared to the commercial alternatives, not compared to the previous NASA heavy launchers.

  • envy

    NASA used to do that, back when they had a goal and a deadline.

  • windbourne

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturn_V#Cost
    https://history.nasa.gov/SP-4029/Apollo_18-16_Apollo_Program_Budget_Appropriations.htm

    From 1964 until 1973, $6.417 billion (equivalent to $33 billion in 2016)[55] in total was appropriated for the R&D and flights of the Saturn V,

    So, $33B in 2016 $ was spent, in total, for the entire saturn V. That included the massive R&D & flights. 15 Rockets were made for that.

    Here is SLS:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Launch_System#Program_costs_and_funding

    ~12B in real $ JUST FOR PARTIAL DEVELOPMENT OF SLS.

    So, what is excluded?

    These prior SLS costs:

    1) Exclude costs of the predecessor Ares V / Cargo Launch Vehicle (funded from 2008 to 2010)[115]

    2) Exclude costs for the Ares 1 / Crew Launch Vehicle (funded from 2006 to 2010, a total of $4.8 billion[115][116] in development that included the 5-segment Solid Rocket Boosters that will be used on the SLS)

    3) Exclude costs of the Upper Stage for the SLS, the EUS

    4) Exclude costs to assemble, integrate, prepare and launch the SLS and its payloads such as Orion (funded under the NASA Ground Operations Project,[117] currently about $400M[107] per year)

    5) Exclude costs of payloads for the SLS (such as Orion)

    And unlike the Sat V, most of the R&D was already done.
    The engines for SLS were taken from the Shuttle ( as dictated by CONgress) to the Ares V.
    The SRB were from the Shuttle to the Ares V (again dictated by CONgress).

    Constellation costs another $11B, of which all of the R&D went into SLS.

    And no, the shuttle ongoing annual costs were not 30+B, which is what SLS will costs before it lifts a real cargo.

  • envy

    You said “a great deal more”. The SLS program is 12 years of constant $1.8 billion spend away from just matching Saturn V, nevermind being a great deal more. If it launches in 4 years and transitions to 2/year within 2 years after that, the cost will be basically equivalent to Saturn V for the same number of flights by 2030.

    The Shuttle cost $196 billion constant year dollars from 1972 to 2011, or $5 billion per year. SLS and Orion have not exceeded that total or per year spend, nor are they likely to do so. Even counting the entire human exploration budget including ground ops, the spend is a little less than the Shuttle average.

    Now, SLS certainly SHOULD be a lot cheaper, because of the previous development and canceled projects you mentioned. That’s the way it was sold to the US public after CxP crashed and burned (speaking programmaticly, not literally). But compared to previous HLV projects it’s not really that expensive. Yet.

  • duheagle

    Here it’s “ancient times.” In Russia, not so much.