Search for an­swers af­ter rocket fail­ure

Amer­i­can and Rus­sian sur­vive but launches to space sta­tion sus­pended

Weekend Herald - - World - Dmitry Lovet­sky

The prob­lem came two min­utes into the flight: The rocket car­ry­ing an Amer­i­can and a Rus­sian to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion failed on Thurs­day night, trig­ger­ing an emer­gency that sent their cap­sule into a steep, har­row­ing fall back to Earth.

The crew landed safely on the steppes of Kaza­khstan, but the aborted mis­sion dealt an­other blow to the trou­bled Rus­sian space pro­gramme that cur­rently serves as the only way to de­liver as­tro­nauts to the or­bit­ing out­post. It also was the first such ac­ci­dent for Rus­sia’s manned pro­gramme in more than three decades.

Nasa as­tro­naut Nick Hague and Roscos­mos’ Alexei Ov­chinin had a brief pe­riod of weight­less­ness when the cap­sule sep­a­rated from the mal­func­tion­ing Soyuz rocket at an al­ti­tude of about 50km, then en­dured grav­i­ta­tional forces of six to seven times more than is felt on Earth as they came down at a sharper-thannor­mal an­gle.

About a half-hour later, the cap­sule parachuted onto a bar­ren area about 20 east of the city of Dzhezkaz­gan in Kaza­khstan.

“Thank God the crew is alive,” said Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

All Rus­sian manned launches were sus­pended pend­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the fail­ure, said Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Yuri Borisov.

New Nasa ad­min­is­tra­tor Jim Bri­den­s­tine, who watched the launch at the Rus­sian-leased Baikonur cos­mod­rome with his Rus­sian coun­ter­part, said Hague and Ov­chinin were in good con­di­tion. He added that a “thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion” would be con­ducted.

Hague, 43, and Ov­chinin, 47, lifted off at 9.40pm Thurs­day NZT. The as­tro­nauts were to dock at the space sta­tion six hours later and join an Amer­i­can, a Rus­sian and a Ger­man on board.

But the three-stage Soyuz rocket suf­fered an un­spec­i­fied fail­ure of its sec­ond stage two min­utes af­ter launch. Rus­sian news re­ports in­di­cated that one of its four first­stage en­gines might have failed to jet­ti­son in sync with oth­ers, re­sult­ing in the sec­ond stage’s shut­down and ac­ti­vat­ing the au­to­matic emer­gency res­cue sys­tem.

For the crew in the cap­sule, events would have hap­pened very quickly, Nasa’s deputy chief as­tro­naut Reid Wise­man told re­porters at Nasa’s John­son Space Cen­tre in Hous­ton. An emer­gency light would have come on and, an instant later, the abort mo­tors would have fired to pull the cap­sule away from the rocket.

Wise­man said the only thing that went through his mind was “I hope they get down safe”. Search and res­cue teams scram­bled to re­cover the crew, and para­troop­ers were dropped to the site. Dzhezkaz­gan is about 450km north­east of Baikonur, and space­craft re­turn­ing from the space sta­tion nor­mally land in that area.

Back at Baikonur, Bri­den­s­tine ac­knowl­edged in a Nasa TV in­ter­view that “for a pe­riod of time, we didn’t know what the sit­u­a­tion was”.

Hague’s wife, Catie, an Air Force of­fi­cer, and his par­ents anx­iously awaited word at Baikonur.

“It was a tough day, no doubt, but at the end of the day, the train­ing paid off for ev­ery­body,” Bri­den­s­tine said.

Still, Bri­den­s­tine said: “We are thrilled that even though it was a launch fail­ure, all of the safety sys­tems worked.”

The as­tro­nauts were re­turned to Baikonur for med­i­cal checks and to see their fam­i­lies. They were spend­ing the night there be­fore head­ing to Star City, Rus­sia’s train­ing cen­tre out­side Moscow.

It was to be the first space mis­sion for Hague, who joined Nasa’s as­tro­naut corps in 2013 and might have to wait awhile for an­other shot. Ov­chinin spent six months on the or­bit­ing out­post in 2016.

Oleg Orlov, the head of Rus­sia’s main space medicine cen­tre, said the crew was trained to en­dure high­erthan-usual grav­ity loads and were tightly strapped into their cus­tom­made seats to help with­stand the pres­sure.

Flight con­trollers kept the three space sta­tion res­i­dents in­formed, as­sur­ing them, “The boys have landed.”

“Glad our friends are fine,” space sta­tion com­man­der Alexan­der Gerst, a Euro­pean Space Agency as­tro­naut from Ger­many, tweeted from or­bit. “Space­flight is hard. And we must keep try­ing for the ben­e­fit of hu­mankind.”

There was no im­me­di­ate word on whether the space sta­tion crew might need to ex­tend its own six-month mis­sion. Two space­walks planned for later this month were off in­def­i­nitely. Hague was sup­posed to be one of the space­walk­ers.

Nasa said it’s dust­ing off its plans for op­er­at­ing the space sta­tion with­out a crew, just in case the Rus­sian in­ves­ti­ga­tion drags into next year.

Kenny Todd, a space sta­tion man­ager, said from Hous­ton that the space sta­tion crew could stay on board un­til Jan­uary. That’s just a month be­yond their ex­pected mid-De­cem­ber re­turn. Their Soyuz cap­sule is good for about 200 days in or­bit.

If the Rus­sian rock­ets re­main grounded un­til it’s time for the crew to come home, flight con­trollers could op­er­ate the sta­tion with­out any­one on board, Todd said.

It could op­er­ate like that for a long time, bar­ring a ma­jor equip­ment fail­ure, he added. But it would need to be staffed be­fore SpaceX or Boe­ing launches its crew cap­sules next year, Todd said. Given that the space sta­tion is a US$100 bil­lion ($153.3b) as­set, Todd said it needed to have some­one on board for the ar­rival of the com­mer­cial demo mis­sions, for safety rea­sons.

While the Rus­sian pro­gramme has been dogged by a string of prob­lems with other kinds of launches in re­cent years, Thurs­day’s in­ci­dent marked its first manned launch fail­ure since Septem­ber 1983, when a Soyuz ex­ploded on the launch pad.

Borisov said Rus­sia would fully share all rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion with the US, which pays up to US$82 mil­lion per ride to the space sta­tion.

“I hope that the Amer­i­can side will treat it with un­der­stand­ing,” he said.

Nasa’s Bri­den­s­tine em­pha­sised that col­lab­o­ra­tion with Roscos­mos re­mains im­por­tant.

Re­la­tions be­tween Moscow and Wash­ing­ton have sunk to post-Cold War lows over con­flicts in Ukraine and Syria, and al­le­ga­tions of Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 US pres­i­den­tial vote, but they have kept co-op­er­at­ing in space.

The Rus­sian Soyuz space­craft is cur­rently the only ve­hi­cle for fer­ry­ing crews to the space sta­tion fol­low­ing the re­tire­ment of the US space shut­tle fleet. Rus­sia stands to lose that monopoly with the ar­rival of SpaceX’s Dragon and Boe­ing’s Star­liner crew cap­sules.

In Au­gust, the space sta­tion crew found a hole in a Soyuz cap­sule docked to the or­bit­ing out­post that caused a brief loss of air pres­sure be­fore be­ing patched. Roscos­mos chief Dmitry Ro­gozin raised wide con­cern by say­ing the leak was a drill hole that was made in­ten­tion­ally dur­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing or in or­bit. He didn’t say if he sus­pected any of the sta­tion’s crew.

In the 1983 launch fail­ure, cos­mo­nauts Vladimir Ti­tov and Gen­nady Strekalov jet­ti­soned and landed safely near the launch pad af­ter the Soyuz ex­plo­sion.

“It’s an un­pleas­ant sit­u­a­tion,” Ti­tov told the Tass news agency yes­ter­day. “We went through it, and it was very bad.” He added that it would take about a week for the crew to fully re­cover.

In 1975, the fail­ure of a Soyuz up­per stage sent Vasily Lazarev and Oleg Makarov into a fiery fall to Earth from an al­ti­tude of 190km, sub­ject­ing them to enor­mous G-forces that caused them to black out and tem­po­rar­ily lose sight. They landed on a snowy moun­tain slope and spent two nights in the cold be­fore res­cue crews reached them.

Rus­sia has con­tin­ued to rely on Soviet-de­signed rock­ets for com­mer­cial satel­lites, as well as crews and cargo to the space sta­tion.

While Rus­sian rock­ets earned a rep­u­ta­tion for re­li­a­bil­ity in the past, the re­cent launch fail­ures have cast doubt on Rus­sia’s abil­ity to main­tain its high stan­dards.

Gl­itches found in Rus­sia’s Pro­ton and Soyuz rock­ets in 2016 were traced to man­u­fac­tur­ing flaws. Roscos­mos sent more than 70 rocket en­gines back to pro­duc­tion lines to re­place faulty com­po­nents, a move that re­sulted in a year­long break in Pro­ton launches and badly dented Rus­sia’s niche in the global mar­ket for com­mer­cial launches. AP

Pho­tos / AP

Res­cue teams picked up Nick Hague and Alexei Ov­chinin in a field near Dzhezkaz­gan, Kaza­khstan.

The Soyuz rocket mal­func­tioned at an al­ti­tude of about 50km, send­ing its cap­sule into a steep fall back to Earth.

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