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.