The Russians move fast. After one of their rockets malfunctioned last month, triggering an automatic abort, Roscosmos, the country’s space agency, says it knows what happened and how to fix it. Instead of delaying the next flight with astronauts — originally scheduled for Dec. 20— it is moving up the launch to Dec. 3.
Confident in its Russian counterpart, NASA has signed off on this. And Anne McClain, the American astronaut up next in the flight rotation, says she is ready to strap in and go. “I would have gotten on the Soyuz the next day,” she told reporters Friday.
On Oct. 11, a Russian Soyuz rocket suffered a failure less than three minutes into flight when one of the side boosters failed to separate properly and slammed into the rocket.
Roscosmos has said that the mishap was caused by a “deformed” sensor damaged during the rocket’s assembly that caused the booster separation problem. Since the accident, Russia has flown the Soyuz three times without crews successfully, restoring confidence in the system.
In an interview Friday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Roscosmos has been “very transparent. They have shared with us all the data we need to be comfortable and confident that we understand the problem and that it has been resolved.”
He said the flight was moved up to “get our crew up there as soon as possible” since the last mission failed. Scott Kelly, the former NASA astronaut who spent nearly a year in space, said that made sense given that two of three crew members on the next flight were “rookies” who had never been to space. Getting to the station early would “give the crew time to do an effective handover," he said. “I could see why they’d want to move that flight earlier if they could safely do that.”
Although harrowing, the last mission was viewed within NASA as a “very successful failed launch,” as Bridenstine said, since the crews returned to Earth safely. After the booster collided with the rocket, the spacecraft instantaneously jettisoned away from the rocket, carrying the astronauts — one Russian, one American — on a wild ride near the edge of space.
During the escape, the pair were slammed back into their seats and experienced 7 Gs, or seven times the force of gravity. NASA astronaut Nick Hague recently told reporters the first thing he noticed “was being shaken violently from side to side. The alarm sounded, a light flashed and “once I saw the light, I knew we had an emergency with the booster.”
Hague and his Russian counterpart, Alexey Ovchinin, were also found immediately by rescue teams, a much better outcome than a notorious launch abort in 1975 when Soviet Union cosmonauts landed in a remote part of eastern Russia on the snowy slope of a mountain and nearly tumbled off a cliff. (They were located a day later.) But even when aborts go right, they still are not supposed to happen in the first place. This was perilously close to what is known in space industry lingo as a “bad day.” Space travel is inherently risky, but NASA and its partners try to buy down the risk.
It appears to be a “fairly straightforward assembly error they made as they put the rocket together,” said Wayne Hale, former manager of NASA’s space shuttle program. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the basic design.”
The mishap follows the discovery of a small, drilled hole of mysterious origin in one section.
The hole is the subject of a separate investigation by Roscosmos. The Russians have floated the idea of sabotage. The hole had been clumsily patched after it had been created, and when the patch failed a small leak of air from the station triggered alarms. The hole has since been patched again and is not considered a threat to the Soyuz’s reentry because it’s in a section of the spacecraft that is jettisoned in space.
The two anomalies — the launch failure and the Soyuz hole — are almost surely unrelated, according to industry experts. But this is a business that would like its current number of anomalies under investigation to be zero, not two.
Bridenstine said the pair of problems “raises questions” but didn’t want to comment until the investigation is complete.
The incidents also serve as a reminder that the Soyuz is the only way humans can get to the International Space Station. If the Soyuz were to be grounded for an extended period of time NASA and its partners may have to abandon the station temporarily.
“I wouldn’t put the crew at risk to keep it crewed,” said Mike Suffredini, the president and CEO of Axiom Space, which is developing private space stations.
Similarly, a NASA safety advisory panel last month said that with the desire to stay on schedule “there is the potential for the workforce — striving to meet unrealistic dates and pressures to ‘get on with it' — will subtly erode sound decision-making as proposed launch dates approach.”
McClain said she had confidence that Roscosmos had fixed the problem by asking “the three important questions: What Happened? Why did it happen? And how do we ensure it doesn’t happen again? Nobody was going to give a green light until those three questions were answered.”