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NASA's carpool to Space Station is back on as Russian rocket Soyuz quickly returns to flight

NASA's carpool to Space Station is back on as Russian rocket Soyuz quickly returns to flight
© Getty Images

When a Russian Soyuz rocket suffered a mishap on October 11, the question arose whether the International Space Station could be sustained until the problem was discovered and fixed. The launch failure sent NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin on a dangerous, high-G ballistic abort maneuver.

At the time, some suggested that the space station would have to be abandoned entirely, or the current crew would have to wait it out until one or both of the commercial spacecraft under development would become available next year. Fortunately, the Russians found the cause of the abort in short order and, with a fix, will be prepared to launch with a new crew in early December.

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According to Space.com, a sensor was deformed when the Soyuz launch vehicle was assembled. As a result, one of the strap-on boosters hit the core booster during separation, triggering an automatic abort. The Russians have offered assurances that measures have been taken that will prevent a reoccurrence of the faulty installation.

So far, two uncrewed Soyuz rockets have launched without incident. The third Soyuz lifted off successfully at 1:14 EST on Friday, carrying a Progress cargo ship to the ISS.

The quick resolution of the Soyuz accident contrasts with NASA’s experience. The American space agency took two years and seven months to return to flight after the Challenger disaster that took place in late January 1986. Two years and five months passed before the space shuttle fleet began flying again after the Columbia broke apart in the skies over Texas in January 2003.

NASA is pretty confident that the Russians know what they are doing in returning to flight relatively quickly. The Russian Space Agency has experienced quality control problems, with a hole having been found in the Soyuz currently docked with the ISS. The Proton rocket has suffered numerous failures and partial failures in the past decade, according to a piece in Space News.

Though they are not likely to express any concerns, officials from NASA and the other ISS partners must be nervous about the performance of the Soyuz going forward. On one hand, the Russian rocket is one of the oldest and, until recently, one of the most reliable launch vehicles in operation. On the other hand, no assurance exists that the Russians have gotten a handle on the quality control problems with their space vehicles.

Still, if all goes well, in a year’s time the world will have two more ways to move people to and from low Earth orbit in the form of the SpaceX Dragon and the Boeing Starliner. A failure of one spacecraft will not close access to the International Space Station. The Soyuz launch failure and the aforementioned Challenger and Columbia disasters have proven the wisdom of having more than one spacecraft in which to fly astronauts.

More than one spacecraft, since the two American models will be commercially operated, will result in free market competition, something never before seen in human spaceflight. The old model of a government-run spaceline in the form of the space shuttle fleet has been consigned to the ash heap of history. Two spacecraft will compete with one another on the basis of price and quality. The Dragon, the Starliner, and other vehicles certain to follow will open the high frontier of space more than ever before.

The creation of a commercial human spaceflight industry is an example of rare bipartisan wisdom on behalf of President George W. Bush and President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Obamas' first White House dog, Bo, dies Census results show White House doubling down on failure MORE. In the wake of the Columbia disaster, Bush started the process of commercial spaceflight to the ISS, first with cargo ships, then with crewed vehicles. President Barack Obama doubled down on the idea, running into resistance from Congress because his decision was accompanied by the highly unpopular decision to cancel the Constellation space exploration program.

The advent of cheaper spaceflight will also mean more commercial development of low Earth orbit. With NASA’s encouragement, companies such as Bigelow and Nanoracks plan to build commercial space stations. As the space agency moves onward to the moon and Mars, low Earth orbit will in short order become the venue of economic activity. The commercial space age will have begun in earnest.

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.”