NASA signs off on Russia moving up its next launch
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, mission was viewed
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 also 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 located 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.”
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.”