Russian Soyuz rocket failure leaves NASA with no ride to International Space Station

Russian Soyuz rocket failure leaves NASA with no ride to International Space Station
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NASA and the Roscosmos, the Russian state enterprise that handles spaceflight for that country, now has a big problem on their hands.

A Soyuz spacecraft headed for the International Space Station experienced a launch failure early Thursday. The good news is that the two passengers, NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin have landed safe and have been picked up by a search and rescue helicopter. The bad news is that there is now no reliable means of taking crew to and from the ISS.

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NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explained that "shortly after launch, there was an anomaly with the booster and the launch ascent was aborted, resulting in a ballistic landing of the spacecraft."

According to NASA, Hague and Ovchinin have been rescued and are in good condition. They are headed to Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia outside of Moscow.

NASA is monitoring the situation and "working closely with Roscosmos to ensure the safe return of the crew. Safety of the crew is the utmost priority for NASA. A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted,” according to a statement.

The Russian government has already formed a state commission to investigate the cause of the accident. However, it seems clear that in combination with the hole found in the Soyuz now docked with the ISS, Roscosmos has developed a quality control problem that has become systemic.

In the meantime, NASA’s commercial crew program continues to experience delays, according to Space News.

Currently, the first uncrewed spaceflight for the SpaceX Dragon is scheduled for January 2019 while the first crewed test flight has been pushed back to June 2019. The first uncrewed flight for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner is not scheduled to happen until March 2019 and the first crewed test flight will occur on August 2019. NASA still hoped to have an operational test flight of the Dragon on August 2019 and for the CST-100 in December 2019.

As a practical matter, NASA’s safety culture will likely prevent it from accelerating the commercial crew timetable. However, the June and August test flights might double as operational missions, taking new crews to the ISS and retrieving the current crews.

In the meantime, NASA and Roscosmos has a number of options. They could try to maintain the current crew on the ISS until the commercial crew spacecraft are available or the Soyuz is certified safe to fly. Cargo resupply can keep the people on board the space station supplied with consumables.

On the other hand, NASA and Roscosmos may explore the option of running the ISS without a crew until the commercial crew vehicles are ready or the Soyuz is pronounced safe to fly again, whichever comes first. Such a mode of operation has never been done before and entails some risk.

The current state of affairs in which the world is dependent on using just one spacecraft has its origins in the Bush-era decision to retire the space shuttle fleet. The idea was that the cost of operating the orbiters would then be plowed into the then Constellation program that, among other things, would develop the Orion spacecraft as a new ISS taxi.

At the time, NASA only anticipated a two-year ”space gap” during which the Soyuz would be relied on to access the $100 billion space station.

However, delays in the development of the Orion and the program to develop commercial alternatives for space access provided an excuse for the Obama administration to cancel the Constellation program root and branch and double down on the commercial crew program.

Angered by the decision, Congress initially underfunded the program to develop commercial spacecraft. The underfunding plus the usual technical problems that attend aerospace development projects expanded the two-year space gap to one lasting at least eight years. Thus, human spaceflight is facing yet another crisis made by ill-considered policy decisions by governments.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”