Space travel is arguably the most risky venture mankind has undertaken in its history. When something goes wrong, the reaction of space agencies is usually great caution. This is in effect now as the ISS canceled all spacewalking activities for the foreseeable future after an astronaut ferry mission in a Soyuz rocket went very wrong shortly after launch from Baikonur on Thursday last week.
As the Soyuz FG launch vehicle was heading for orbit, shortly before the schedule T +120 second booster detachment, something happened. The booster failed and the emergency escape system triggered, pulling the Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and American astronaut Nick Hague away from the failed first stage. The escape system worked perfectly, and the astronauts endured a fairly grueling 6.7g deceleration before landing safely in a field some 400 km (250 miles) downrange from the launch pad.
The success of the emergency escape system cannot be overrated, obviously. But the failure of the Soyuz rocket is the second significant problem to arise in a program known usually in the US and Russia by its almost boring, “business as usual” demeanor.
The first problem arose a little over a month ago, on 29 August, when a small hole was discovered in the hull of a Soyuz docking module attached to the International Space Station. That hole was found after a slight drop in ISS cabin air pressure was noted by instruments on board. The hole measured two millimeters across and had been drilled by someone in the upper orbital module of the Soyuz crew rocket.
The reason for this is as yet unknown, but the company Energia is the place where the final assembly of the Soyuz spacecraft takes place. As a coincidence, the two astronauts who failed to reach the ISS on Thursday were actually slated to inspect the hole from the earlier craft to continue the investigation into how this happened.
The reason is simple. If there is a hole in the hull, the ISS can lose its atmosphere and anyone on the station risks suffocation and death. As it stands, the hole that was discovered was very small, and the leak would have taken a very long time to depressurize the whole ISS, but such malpractice should not happen at all in spacefaring equipment. Hence, both Russian and American space agencies are concerned.
The concurrence of these two incidents has now led to a cancellation of spacewalks from the ISS, and it also has led to a freeze of launches while RosKosmos and NASA investigate the issue.
Soyuz is the only operating launch vehicle taking astronauts to the ISS at this time. The United States lost its spacefaring capability when it canceled its Space Shuttle program in 2011. At that time, too, relations with fellow spacefaring Russia were in a better state than they are now. Ironically, as the US-Russian diplomatic row took hold, so did American dependency on Russian equipment – RD-180 engines for American rockets and the Soyuz platform as the only way to ferry astronauts to and from the Space Station.
Now, even the Russian program is at a standstill. With spacewalks canceled, and Soyuz launches on hold pending a further investigation into this recent failure, the situation is this:
The ISS is presently crewed by three astronauts: Serena M. Auñon-Chancellor and Alexander Gerst of the USA and Germany respectively, and Sergey Prokopyev of Russia. Their return vehicle is the Soyuz spacecraft with the hole in it. While the hole is sealed, it was later found that it extended through to the micrometeoroid shield, a piece of worse news. While confidence is reasonably high that the craft with its patch-job will survive re-entry, the preference was to have a fully viable craft for the return journey, and now this will have to wait for at least another month while the investigation on the ground is carried out.
Initial reports about the Soyuz malfunction are vague, only noting that components of different stages of the rocket collided with one another on the ascent.
As the investigation continues, perhaps SpaceX and Blue Horizons may be seen to gain front and center stage. SpaceX is in the closest position to being able to take men and women into orbit but its Crew Dragon is still in development and testing. No one else is even close.
While spaceflight is often off the radar of most people in our times, these two recent events have brought it back into the spotlight, as they highlight the concern for a program that is not being pursued as it was once, back in the great Space Race of the 1960’s.