Rus­sia, NASA move up next launch af­ter fail­ure


The Rus­sians move fast. Af­ter one of their rock­ets mal­func­tioned last month, trig­ger­ing an au­to­matic abort, Roscos­mos, the county’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 in or­der 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.”

Though har­row­ing, the last mis­sion was viewed within NASA as a “very suc­cess­ful failed launch,” as Bri­den­s­tine said, be­cause 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, they 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 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 spot­ted a day later. But even when aborts go right they 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, who served as NASA’s for­mer space shut­tle pro­gram man­ager. “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 re-en­try 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.

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