Russians identify cause of rocket failure
But it’s still unclear how it’ll affect future space station flights
Russian officials say they know why the rocket booster on the spacecraft headed to the International Space Station failed Thursday, but it still is unclear how the mishap will impact future flights to the orbiting laboratory.
The aborted launch, which forced an emergency landing, was the first since 2011, when NASA astronauts began hitching rides in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft after the space shuttles were retired. NASA has no other way to reach the space station and therefore is grounded until Russia sorts out the problem.
On Friday, it appeared Russian officials were well on their way to figuring out what happened. Sergei Krikalyov, executive director for Manned Flights for Roscosmos state space corporation, told state-run news agency TASS that the failure occurred when the first and second stages of the rocket collided as they separated.
“A deviation from the standard trajectory occurred and apparently the lower part of the second stage disintegrated,” Krikalyov said. “This could have been caused by the failure of the system of the normal separation, which should have been activated. We will analyze the causes in detail.”
NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin were aboard the Soyuz on Thursday, but are safe and in good condition.
The next Russian cargo mission to the space station, scheduled for later this month, may be delayed, Krikalyov said. Or, he said, the Soyuz launch scheduled for Dec. 20 may be moved up.
“Different versions of the program are being considered,” he said, adding that Russia plans to release a final report on the incident after Oct. 20.
That date is well before the Russian space agency completes its investigation into the origin of a hole that caused an air leak discovered in a different Soyuz attached to the station in August. That investigation is supposed to be complete in November, but the Russians have canceled a planned Nov. 15 spacewalk to examine the hole.
Ovchinin was supposed to participate in that spacewalk, but Krikalyov said that Russia will try to complete it with one of the next crews.
The Russians have said the hole is not a manufacturer’s defect but was caused by an errant drill, either on Earth or in space.
The failed mission Thursday would have been Hague’s first spaceflight since being tapped as an astronaut in 2013. NASA officials weren’t sure when Hague would get a chance to fly again, but Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Roscosmos, tweeted a photo of himself Friday with Hague and Ovchinin, saying the duo would get to fly again in spring 2019.
How that would work still is unclear. The Soyuz’s April 2019 launch already has an American crew assigned to it. NASA could not immediately be reached for comment on this development.
Hague was not available for interviews Friday, but tweeted that he was thankful for the support and prayers following his dramatic descent from the sky.
“Operational teams were outstanding in ensuring our safety & returning us to family & friends,” he wrote. “Working with our international partners, I’m confident that we will find a path forward & continue the achievements of ” the space station.
The U.S. funnels a significant amount of money into the space station each year — $1.45 billion in fiscal year 2017 alone, not counting transportation costs.
NASA officials said Thursday they were unsure whether Russia had been paid the $82 million for Hague’s seat prior to the launch. If shifting timetables are to be believed, Boeing and SpaceX’s commercial crew vehicles will have their first test flights in summer 2019.
The vehicles, which would eliminate U.S. dependence on Russia for trips to the station, were supposed to be ready this year but still aren’t, and the launch dates could easily slip again.