NASA says 2018 mis­sion still pos­si­ble


MOSCOW — NASA’s top of­fi­cial sug­gested Fri­day that a new mis­sion to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion could take place this year af­ter Rus­sian ex­perts ad­dress the cause of a Soyuz rocket mal­func­tion, which sent the crew on a har­row­ing es­cape from the outer edge of the strato­sphere.

“I fully an­tic­i­pate that we will fly again on a Soyuz rocket, and I have no rea­son to be­lieve at this point that it will not be on sched­ule,” NASA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Jim Bri­den­s­tine told re­porters.

That could mean an­other launch be­fore mid-De­cem­ber, when the three-mem­ber crew on the space sta­tion — an Amer­i­can, Rus­sian and Ger­man — was sched­uled to end their six-month mis­sion.

“No changes have been made. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion is un­der­way,” Bri­den­s­tine added.

A Soyuz cap­sule at­tached to the sta­tion that the crew will use to ride back to Earth is de­signed for 200 days in space, mean­ing that their stay in or­bit could only be ex­tended briefly.

“We don’t have an op­por­tu­nity to ex­tend it for a long time,” said Sergei Krika­ly­ovi, the head of the Rus­sian space agency Roscos­mos’ manned pro­grams.

Rus­sian space launches were sus­pended Thurs­day af­ter the booster mal­func­tioned about two min­utes af­ter liftoff — about 31 miles above the sur­face — with NASA’s Nick Hague and Rus­sian cos­mo­naut Alexey Ov­chinin aboard. Both men landed safely on the grassy steppes of Kaza­khstan af­ter jet­ti­son­ing away in their cap­sule.

Rus­sian rock­ets are the only way to reach the or­bit­ing lab­o­ra­tory, but Bri­den­s­tine said the rocket fail­ure — Rus­sia’s first such in­ci­dent in the post-Soviet era — had not tar­nished his view of the ven­er­a­ble Soyuz rock­ets.

The cap­sule’s parachutes de­ployed, but the de­scent was steep and fast. NASA said Hague and Ov­chinin ex­pe­ri­enced more than six times the force of grav­ity be­fore tum­bling onto an ex­panse more than 200 miles from the Rus­sian-op­er­ated Baikonur Cos­mod­rome in Kaza­khstan.

Rus­sian tech­ni­cians are con­duct­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the rocket fail­ure. Bri­den­s­tine said they have a “re­ally good idea” on the cause.

“I think the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is go­ing to go swiftly,” he said, but gave no fur­ther de­tails on the pre­lim­i­nary find­ings.

Krika­ly­ovi said one of the rocket’s four boost­ers failed to sep­a­rate from the main stage. All Soyuz flights, both manned and those car­ry­ing vi­tal sup­plies such as food and equip­ment, have been sus­pended pend­ing the out­come of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Hague and Ov­chinin re­mained un­der med­i­cal ob­ser­va­tion Fri­day.

Re­call­ing the mo­ment Bri­den­s­tine re­al­ized some­thing had gone awry with the launch, he said hear­ing Hague speak Rus­sian con­firmed his fears.

“My im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion was, ‘Things are not go­ing well. He’s not speak­ing English.’” Hague’s words — in which he de­scribed the sharp drop in grav­ity — were then trans­lated into English. All mem­bers of the Soyuz crew must learn Rus­sian.

“So, in other words, he was calm, he was cool, he was col­lected, he was do­ing what he was trained to do,” said Bri­den­s­tine, who was at the Baikonur Cos­mod­rome to watch the launch.

About 34 min­utes elapsed from the time the rocket failed to when the cap­sule fi­nally parachuted to a land­ing on the steppes of Kaza­khstan, where res­cue crews swiftly picked up the pair.

Bri­den­s­tine praised the Soyuz emer­gency res­cue sys­tem, say­ing it func­tioned like a “mir­a­cle.”

“Even when a fail­ure oc­curs, be­cause of the en­gi­neer­ing and the de­sign and the great work done by folks in Rus­sia, the crew can be safe,” he said. “That’s an amaz­ing ca­pa­bil­ity and we can’t un­der­state how im­por­tant it is. Not ev­ery mis­sion that fails ends up so suc­cess­fully.”

Hague also ex­pressed his grat­i­tude.

“Thank you all for your sup­port & heart­felt prayers,” he tweeted. “Op­er­a­tional teams were out­stand­ing in en­sur­ing our safety & re­turn­ing us to fam­ily & friends.”

Dmitry Ro­gozin, the chief of Roscos­mos, promised that both men will be given an­other chance to reach the space sta­tion.

“The boys will cer­tainly fly their mis­sion,” Ro­gozin tweeted, post­ing a pic­ture in which he sits with the two as­tro­nauts aboard a Moscow-bound plane. “We plan that they will fly in the spring.”

In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Amie Fer­ris-Rot­man of The Wash­ing­ton Post; and by Vladimir Isachenkov and Nataliya Vasi­lyeva of The As­so­ci­ated Press.


Dmitry Ro­gozin (cen­ter), the head of Rus­sian space agency Roscos­mos, sits with cos­mo­naut Alexei Ov­chinin (left) and U.S. as­tro­naut Nick Hague at Star City, Rus­sia, in an un­dated photo. Ro­gozin promised that Ov­chinin and Hague will get an­other chance to go to space af­ter Thurs­day’s aborted launch.

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