Soyuz rocket fail­ure: Rus­sia has lost its rep­u­ta­tion as a space leader

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - OPINION - MICHAEL BYERS MAR­GARET WENTE will re­turn

Canada Re­search Chair in Global Pol­i­tics and In­ter­na­tional Law at the Uni­ver­sity of Bri­tish Columbia

Two astro­nauts – one Amer­i­can, the other Rus­sian – nar­rowly es­caped death over Kaza­khstan Thurs­day when their Soyuz rocket failed two min­utes af­ter blast-off.

In the first use of an abort sys­tem in flight, the Soyuz cap­sule de­tached from the rocket and fell back to Earth. For­tu­nately, the Gforces were within sur­viv­able lim­its and the cap­sule’s para­chutes de­ployed.

Yet the fail­ure of the rocket has huge im­pli­ca­tions for the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion – the ISS – where the astro­nauts were headed. For half a cen­tury, Soyuz rock­ets have been the work­horses of the Soviet and Rus­sian space pro­grams. Af­ter the U.S. Na­tional Aero­nau­tics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion (NASA) shut down the Space Shut­tle pro­gram in 2011, Rus­sia be­came the sole provider of launches for astro­nauts to the ISS. It also pro­vides many of the un­crewed re­sup­ply mis­sions.

Three astro­nauts are presently on the ISS: an Amer­i­can, a Rus­sian and a Ger­man. They are due to re­turn to Earth this De­cem­ber and could still do so, since their own Soyuz cap­sule is docked to the sta­tion. They also have plenty of food, wa­ter and other sup­plies, thanks to a re­cent de­liv­ery by an un­crewed Ja­panese cargo ves­sel.

The ISS has been con­tin­u­ously oc­cu­pied for al­most two decades. It rep­re­sents a mas­sive in­vest­ment in science and tech­nol­ogy – the most ex­pen­sive sin­gle project un­der­taken by hu­mankind. Yet its com­plex sys­tems, many of them ag­ing, re­quire con­stant main­te­nance and fre­quent re- pair. NASA es­ti­mates a 10-per­cent risk of los­ing the en­tire sta­tion if it is left for six months with­out a crew.

There are also huge risks to the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. The coun­try is los­ing its long-stand­ing po­si­tion of lead­er­ship in space, with im­pli­ca­tions for its geopo­lit­i­cal stature as well as the self-im­age of its pop­u­la­tion. It is no ac­ci­dent that Vladimir Putin re­cently ap­pointed one of his most trusted deputies, Dmitry Ro­gozin, as the head of Roscos­mos, the Rus­sian space agency.

Two other Soyuz launches failed in 2015 and 2016, both of them in­volv­ing un­crewed re­sup­ply ves­sels. But the last fail­ure of a crewed Soyuz mis­sion oc­curred way back in 1983 when a rocket ex­ploded on the launch pad.

This past Au­gust, a tiny hole was dis­cov­ered in the or­bital mod­ule of the Soyuz space­craft cur­rently docked at the ISS. The ori­gins of the hole, which caused a small air leak be­fore it was re­paired, has be­come a point of con­tention be­tween the Rus­sian and Amer­i­can space agen­cies – with Roscos­mos claim­ing sab­o­tage and NASA point­ing to a man­u­fac­tur­ing mis­take as a more likely cause.

It is too soon to know the rea­son for this week’s in-flight ac­ci­dent, al­though it oc­curred at the mo­ment when a side booster was sup­posed to sep­a­rate from the rocket’s sec­ond stage.

NASA, con­cerned about its de­pen­dence on Rus­sian rock­ets, has since 2014 sup­ported the de­vel­op­ment of com­mer­cial space­craft to de­liver astro­nauts to the ISS. SpaceX is plan­ning a test flight of its Crew Dragon in Jan­uary, fol­lowed by a mis­sion with astro­nauts in June. Boe­ing is aim­ing for a test flight of its Star­liner in March, fol­lowed by a mis­sion with astro­nauts in Au­gust. These pro­grams could well be ac­cel­er­ated now.

The Rus­sians may have their own plans. Rus­sia’s In­ter­fax news agency, cit­ing sources in Roscos­mos, says the astro­nauts cur­rently on the ISS will likely have to wait un­til early 2019 be­fore an in­ves­ti­ga­tion can be com­pleted and an­other Soyuz launched.

But the Soyuz cap­sule cur­rently at the ISS is only rated for 210 days in space. It has to be brought back by the end of De­cem­ber if ad­di­tional risks are to be avoided. This leaves NASA and Roscos­mos with three op­tions: launch the next Soyuz with only a two-week de­lay for the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into this week’s ac­ci­dent; leave three astro­nauts on the ISS with­out a safe exit op­tion; or leave the ISS with­out a crew to make es­sen­tial re­pairs.

Ev­ery course of ac­tion car­ries enor­mous risks. And Canada is at the cen­tre of this drama be­cause as­tro­naut David Saint-Jac­ques is due to fly on the next Soyuz mis­sion on Dec. 20 – which just be­came much more dan­ger­ous than it al­ready was.

Mr. Saint-Jac­ques will have no hes­i­ta­tion, of course. Astro­nauts sign up for risk. But the rest of Canada might wish to brace it­self. Space is hard.

Ev­ery course of ac­tion car­ries enor­mous risks. And Canada is at the cen­tre of this drama be­cause as­tro­naut David Saint-Jac­ques is due to fly on the next Soyuz mis­sion on Dec. 20.


On Thurs­day, a Soyuz rocket failed two min­utes af­ter blast-off at the Baikonur Cos­mod­rome in Kaza­khstan. For­tu­nately, the G-forces were sur­viv­able and the para­chutes were de­ployed.

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