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Holy Week in the Orthodox Christian world moves towards its culmination

Seraphim Hanisch

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Sometimes you may notice upon wishing someone a happy Easter that they say, “Thank you, but our Easter (Pascha) is not yet…”

With so much worldly attention focused on the enormous Roman Catholic Church and its celebrations of the Good Friday to Easter Sunday, it is easy to pass over the incredible tradition of the Week of the Lord’s Passion, Crucifixion, defeat of Death and Hades, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as it is celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is the oldest and second largest Christian communion in the world. Oldest? Yep. It predates the Roman Catholic Church by 1,000 years. Second largest? Yes again. There are approximately 250 million adherents all around the world, with the largest population currently resident in the Russian Federation. Also known as the “Greek Orthodox Church”, “Russian Orthodox Church” and 13 other such titles, these groups represent fifteen canonically recognized national jurisdictions of one Church. Each national jurisdiction is independent of the others, yet all remain in communion with one another in an unbroken commonality of faith. In other words, one may attend an Orthodox Church in Russia, but be just as much at home in Greece, or Albania, Romania, or even the United States, for although the language used in Church services changes, the expression of faith and worship is the same. This is a unity that does not exist in any other Christian confession in the world.

The Orthodox celebration of services usually amounts to sensory overload for the newcomer, especially someone who is steeped in Western Christian tradition. The first thing that one often notices is a feeling that one has stepped into a very ancient world, and everything about it is just different than the world outside the walls of the church edifice.

We wish to focus just a little bit on the present season. This week has been the Holy Week for Orthodox Christians in most places in the world, and it comes after an already long period of fasting – some 47 days on the day that Holy Week begins, Palm Sunday. The character of the services takes us into the events of the last week of Christ’s earthly life before His Crucifixion and Resurrection.

Far from being a “re-enactment” or “remembrance” of events that happened 2,000 years ago, the Orthodox Christian tradition employs a technique understood best by the Greek people who were the early Christians. The Greeks understood the idea of eternity and the eternal now better than anyone else did, and it is certainly by no accident that this and other elements of Greek culture and thought were utilized by the will of God to create the experience one has in Orthodox Christian worship.

For, rather than looking at the past events through a window, or through the screen of one’s television set, Orthodox worship takes us there, into these moments of the life of Christ, and we are mystically present with Him and his disciples. This may seem like a very bold statement, but it is the common experience for us as Orthodox Christians to go through what might inadequately be called a catharsis, but with us is actually a real experience of these events.

For example, the services of the three Matins (Orthros, or morning services) for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, take us to when Jesus found a fig tree without fruit, and cursed it, causing it to wither away instantly. Later, upon entering the Temple, the chief priests question his authority to teach, to heal, to break the Sabbath by doing things against the Jewish law, and Jesus confounds them with his answer, backing them against the wall of their refusal to believe Him. As the services progress (and in the Orthodox Christian tradition, we pray nine times per day liturgically), event after event unfolds, with Christ’s teachings and experiences intermingled with references to the Old Testament and prophecies and signs made and fulfilled.

To the Western person used to an orderly interpretation of time as Chronos, sequential time, this is dizzying, for the Church seems to be at all points in time at once.

And this is exactly right. She (our pronoun for the Church) is, (and this kind of time is called kairos, the time of God) for She recognizes that all events in the history of the created universe center on the event of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. And as the services unfold, we see and feel, and hear, as well as taste and smell, all of reality converging upon this moment. All times are now for God, and we experience some of this ourselves as we go through the Holy Week services.

One great theme of Palm Sunday is the “wordly” victory that is but the barest hint of the true victory. Palm Sunday’s events were greeted by the multitudes, greeting Jesus so joyfully that they wanted to make him King right there and then. And indeed, Jesus looks over the Temple and the city as though he is the new earthly king of Israel, utterly in charge. But the joy that so many people felt at the prospect of a new king to kick out the Romans changed in just five days, to where many of that same crowd were demanding that this Man be crucified. And even worse, the Jewish authorites – the Pharisees and Scribes, who were consumed by envy and hard-heartedness, (think stubbornness) not only refused to accept Christ, but in that courtyard before Pontius Pilate, they actually commit a travesty, for when Pilate asks them ‘shall I crucify your king?”, these angry men scream back, “we have no king but Caesar!”

On this day, Holy and Great Friday, the Church shows us this convergence of all of history in the morning service:

Today He is suspended on a Tree who suspended the earth upon the waters.

A crown of thorns was placed on the head of the King of angels.

He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.

He who freed Adam in the Jordan is struck upon the face.

The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.

The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.

We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.

Show us also Thy glorious resurrection.

Everything that we think is so important about our life comes to a halt over this statement. Politics, nationalism, opinions, all the fighting that people do with one another over whatever issue in life; all of this is shown in these above phrases to be with no real meaning. It all happens, but that is because it is easy to hide from this Great Fact that is mystically playing out before the eye of our souls today.

Christ hangs on the Cross, by his deliberate choice, not as a victim, but in order to carry out the ultimate defeat of Death and the Devil, and granting us eternal life.

I have to admit that as a journalist, if we all remembered this everyday, our trade would probably be put out of business.

And that would be no bad thing, now, would it?

A blessed Holy and Great Friday to everyone. Christ is doing everything for us today.

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Russian Orthodox Church officially breaks ties with Constantinople

Biggest separation in almost 1,000 years as world’s largest Orthodox Church cuts communion with Constantinople over legitimizing schismatics.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The schism between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate became official today, October 15, 2018, as the Russian Holy Synod reviewed the recent granting of communion to two schismatic groups in Ukraine, pursuant to Constantinople’s intent to grant autocephaly (full self-rule, or independence) to the agglomeration of these groups.

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RT reported that the Synod ruled that any further clerical relations with Constantinople are impossible, given the current conditions. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev told journalists today about the breach in relations:

“A decision about the full break of relations with the Constantinople Patriarchate has been taken at a Synod meeting” that is currently been held in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, Hilarion said, as cited by TASS.

The move comes days after the Synod of the Constantinople Patriarchate decided to eventually grant the so-called autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, thus making the clerical organization, which earlier enjoyed a broad autonomy within the Moscow Patriarchate, fully independent.

The Moscow Patriarchate also said that it would not abide by any decisions taken by Constantinople and related to the status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. “All these decisions are unlawful and canonically void,” Hilarion said, adding that “the Russian Orthodox Church does not recognize these decisions and will not follow them.”

At the same time, the Russian Church expressed its hope that “a common sense will prevail” and Constantinople will change its decision. However, it still accused the Ecumenical Patriarch of initiating the “schism.”

The marks the most significant split in the Orthodox Church since the Great Schism of 1054, in which Rome excommunicated Constantinople, a breach between the Roman Catholics and Orthodox which has persisted ever since then, becoming hardened and embittered after the Roman Catholic armies sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Many other local Orthodox Churches expressed support for the Moscow Patriarchate’s position prior to today’s announcement, but the break in relations between these two churches does not have any known affect on local churches who hold communion with both Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarchate at this time.

The website Orthochristian.com ran the entire statement of the Holy Synod regarding this situation. We offer a brief summary of statements here, taken from that source and patriarcha.ru, adding emphasis.

With deepest pain, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church received the message of the Patriarchate of Constantinople published on October 11, 2018 about the decisions adopted by the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople: on the confirmation of the intention to “grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church”; on the opening of the “stavropegion” of the Patriarch of Constantinople in Kiev; on the “restoration in the hierarchal or priestly rank” of the leaders of the Ukrainian schism and their followers and the “return of their faithful to Church communion”; and on the “cancellation of the action” of the conciliar charter of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1686 concerning the transfer of the Kiev Metropolia to the Moscow Patriarchate

The Synod of the Church of Constantinople made these decisions unilaterally, ignoring the calls of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the entirety of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as the fraternal Local Orthodox Churches, and their primates and bishops for pan-Orthodox discussion of the issue.

Entering into communion with those who have departed into schism, let alone those who have been excommunicated from the Church, is tantamount to departing into schism and is severely condemned by the canons of the holy Church: “If any one of the bishops, presbyters, or deacons, or any of the clergy shall be found communicating with excommunicated persons, let him also be excommunicated, as one who brings confusion on the order of the Church” (Canon 2 of the Council of Antioch; Canon 10, 11 of the Holy Apostles).

The decision of the Patriarchate of Constantinople on the “restoration” of the canonical status and the reception into communion of the former Metropolitan Philaret Denisenko, excommunicated from the Church, ignores a number of successive decisions of the Bishops’ Councils of the Russian Orthodox Church, the legitimacy of which are beyond doubt.

By the decision of the Bishops’ Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Kharkov of May 27, 1992, Metropolitan Philaret (Denisenko) was removed from the Kiev Cathedra and was banned from the clergy for not fulfilling the oath made by him before the cross and the Gospel at the previous Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church.

By its ruling of June 11,1992, the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, confirmed the decision of the Kharkov Council and expelled Philaret Denisenko from his rank, depriving him of every degree of the priesthood on the following charges: “Cruel and arrogant attitude to the subordinate clergy, dictatorialness, and intimidation (Tit. 1:7-8; Canon 27 of the Holy Apostles); introducing temptation among the faithful by his behavior and personal life (Matthew 18:7; Canon 3 of the First Ecumenical Council, Canon 5 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council); oath-breaking (Canon 25 of the Holy Apostles); public slander and blasphemy against the Bishops’ Council (Canon 6 of the Second Ecumenical Council); the celebration of clerical functions, including ordinations, in a state of suspension (Canon 28 of the Holy Apostles); the perpetration of a schism in the Church (Canon 15 of the First-Second Council).” All ordinations performed by Philaret in a suspended state since May 27, 1992, and the punishments imposed by him, were declared invalid.

Despite repeated calls for repentance, after the deprivation of his hierarchal rank Philaret Denisenko continued his schismatic activity, including within the bounds of other Local Churches. By the ruling of the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church of 1997, he was given over to anathema.

The aforesaid decisions were recognized by all the Local Orthodox Churches, including the Church of Constantinople.

… Now, after more than two decades, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has changed its position for political reasons.

… St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, in his Pedalion, which is an authoritative source of ecclesiastical-canonical law of the Church of Constantinople, interprets Canon 9 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, rejecting the false opinion on the right of Constantinople to consider appeals from other Churches: “The Primate of Constantinople does not have the right to act in the dioceses and provinces of other Patriarchs, and this rule did not give him the right to take appeals on any matter in the Ecumenical Church… “ Listing a whole range of arguments in favor of this interpretation, referring to the practice of the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, St. Nikodemos concludes: “At present … the Primate of Constantinople is the first, the only, and the last judge over the metropolitans subordinate to him—but not over those who are subject to the rest of the Patriarchs. For, as we said, the last and universal judge of all the Patriarchs is the Ecumenical Council and no one else.” It follows from the above that the Synod of the Church of Constantinople does not have canonical rights to withdraw judicial decisions rendered by the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church.

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Patriarch Bartholomew lifts anathemas on schismatics in Ukraine (VIDEO)

Most of the Orthodox world is in strong opposition to this move by Patriarch Bartholomew, whose motivations seem not to be of Christ.

Seraphim Hanisch

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The biggest news in the Eastern Orthodox world in recent times occurred on Thursday, October 11, 2018. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, lifted the anathemas against two schismatic Ukrainian Churches and their leaders, paving the way to the creation of a fully independent Ukrainian national Orthodox Church.

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This announcement was given in English and is shown here in video with the textual transcript following:

“Presided by His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Holy and Sacred Synod convened for its regular session from October 9 to 11, 2018 in order to examine and discuss items on its agenda. The Holy Synod discussed in particular and at length, the ecclesiastical mater of Ukraine in the presence of His Excellency Archbishop Daniel of Pamphilon and His Grace Bishp Ilarion of Edmonon, Patriarchal Exarchs to Ukraine, and following extensive deliberations decreed (emphasis added):

First, to renew the decision already made, that the Ecumenical Patriarchate proceed to the granting of autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine;

Second, to re-establish at this moment the stavropegion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Kiev—one of its many starvorpegion in Ukraine that existed there always;

Third, to accept and review the petitions of appeal of Philaret Denisenko and Makary Maletich and their followers who found themselves in schism not for dogmatic reasons, in accordance with the canonical prerogatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to receive such petitions by hierarchs and other clergy of all the autocephalous Churches. Thus, the above mentioned have been canonically reinstated to their hierarchical or priestly rank, and their faithful have been restored to communion with the Church;

Fourth, to revoke the legal binding of the Synodal letter of the year 1686, issued for the circumstances of that time, which granted the right through economia to the Patriarch of Moscow to ordain the Metropolitan of Kiev elected by the clergy-laity assembly of his eparchy, who would commemorate the Ecumenical Patriarch as the first hierarch at any celebration, proclaiming and affirming his canonical dependence to the Mother Church of Constantinople;

Fifth, to appeal to all sides involved that they avoid appropriation of churches, monasteries, and other properties as well as every other act of violence and retaliation so that he peace and love of Christ may prevail.”

There are a few things that must be said about what this declaration is not before we get to the matter of what the points of actually are. The point of reference is the strict letter of the text above itself.

  • This is not a granting of autocephaly (full independent self-rule status) like the fourteen universally canonical Orthodox jurisdictions in the world. However, it is a huge step towards this status.
  • As far as Constantinople is concerned, Filaret Denisenko, the leader and “Patriarch” of the “Kyiv Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church” and Makary, the “Metropolitan” of the “Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Church”, and all their faithful are now restored to communion. The statement says that this applies to “The Church” which may be trying to state that these two men (and all the faithful that they lead), are now in communion with the entirety of canonical Orthodoxy, but more likely, this may be a carefully worded statement to say they now are in communion with Constantinople alone.
  • There is an official call for the cessation of the violence directed against the Moscow Patriarchate parishes and communities, who are the only canonically recognized Orthodox Church in Ukraine, and who are also the largest by far in that country. The Kyiv Patriarchate and Uniate (Roman oriented) Greek Catholics in Ukraine have gone on record for seizing MP church properties, often by force, with neo-Nazi sympathizers and other radical Ukrainian nationalists. So this official call to cease the violence is now a matter of public record.

However, the reaction has been far less civil than the clergy wished for.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko: “Expressing his view of the Moscow Patriarchate, Poroshenko added, “This is a great victory of the God-loving Ukrainian people over the Moscow demons, the victory of Good over Evil, the victory of Light over Darkness.”’

Perhaps this is the reason Metropolitan Onuphry of Ukraine (exarch under the Moscow Patriarchate) has been labeled an enemy of Ukraine and is now receiving death threats. Very civil.

Poroshenko’s statement is all the more bizarre, considering that it has been Ukrainian ultra-nationalists that have been violently attacking Moscow – related parishes in Ukraine. This has been corroborated by news sources eager to pin the blame on Russia, such as the U.K. Guardian.

The Union of Orthodox Journalists, based in Kiev and supportive of the Moscow Patriarchate, has been under intense cyber attack since October 11th, when the EP’s announcement was issued.

Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) Chancellor, Metropolitan Anthony of Boryspil and Brovary: “What happened at the Synod in Istanbul yesterday shocked the entire Orthodox world. It seems the Patriarchate of Constantinople is consciously embarking on a path of schism in world Orthodoxy. Patriarch Bartholomew ignored the calls of the Local Churches to convene a meeting of the primates to work out a common and conciliar solution to the Ukrainian Church issue and unilaterally made very serious but erroneous decisions. I hope the Orthodox world will give this action an objective evaluation… Having received the schismatics into communion, Patriarch Bartholomew did not make them canonical, but has himself embarked on the path of schism. The schismatics remain schismatics. They did not receive any autocephaly or tomos. It seems they have lost even that independence, although non-canonical, that they had and which they always emphasized.”

Metropolitan Rostislav of the Czech Lands and Slovakia:“The Orthodox world recognizes the only canonical primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kiev and All Ukraine. This fact was repeatedly mentioned and confirmed by the primate of the Great Church of Christ His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on behalf of all present at the Synaxis of the Primates of the Local Orthodox Churches that was held in Chambésy (Switzerland) from January 21 to 27, 2016. Therefore, any attempt to legalize the Ukrainian schismatics by the state authorities should be strongly condemned by all the primates of the Local Orthodox Churches.

Patriarch Irinej of Serbia wrote two letters to the Ecumenical Patriarch, advocating that the provision of a new autocephaly is possible only with the consent of all local Orthodox Churches. According to Sedmitza.ru (Translation by Pravoslavie.ru),

“In these letters, it was very clearly stated that the granting of autocephaly cannot be the prerogative the Patriarchate of Constantinople alone, that new autocephalies must be created only with the consent of all the Local Orthodox Churches, as the Holy Synod of Antioch also said in its recent statement.”

Pat. Irinej also warned the Patriarchate of Constantinople against making such major decisions unilaterally, because “it will not bring harmony and peace to the Ukrainian land, but, on the contrary, will cause new divisions and new schisms.”

The Holy Synod of Antioch, the oldest Orthodox Church, and actually the very first place where the disciples of Christ were even called “Christians” weighed in on the issue as well and they had several things to say:

“The fathers examined the general Orthodox situation. They stressed that the Church of Antioch expresses her deep worries about the attempts to change the boundaries of the Orthodox Churches through a new reading of history. She considers that resorting to a unilateral reading of history does not serve Orthodox unity. It rather contributes to the fueling of the dissensions and quarrels within the one Church. Thus, the Church of Antioch refuses the principle of establishing parallel jurisdictions within the canonical boundaries of the Patriarchates and the autocephalous Churches as a way to solve conflicts, or as a de facto situation in the Orthodox world.

To summarize, this move by Constantinople is not being warmly received by many, many people. Most of the local Churches are on record giving their reaction to this process. In brief, here is the list most of the Local Churches and a one or two word summary of their reactions.

Patriarchate of Georgia: Unilateral action is wrong; Constantinople and Moscow must cooperate and find a solution together.

Patriarchate of Jerusalem: recognizes Ukraine as a canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church alone, as do all other local Churches

Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa: The Church does not bow to politicians. Moscow-led church is the only canonical Church in Ukraine.

Archbishop of Cyprus: Decries the Ukrainian situation but offered to mediate a discussion between Moscow and Constantinople

Bulgarian Patriarchate: Interference of the State in Church affairs leads to serious and negative consequences for both.

Polish Orthodox Church: Metropolitan Sawa called for a council of Orthodox ruling hierarchs to discuss this situation.

Estonian Orthodox Church: Condemns Constantinople’s actions in Ukraine.

Greek Archdiocese of America: Supports Constantinople’s actions in Ukraine.

The Orthodox Church of Greece (Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus quoted): “Schismatics, as we know, are not the Church, and communion with them is forbidden by the Divine and holy canons and the Apostolic and Ecumenical Councils. Why then this persistence of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in recognizing schismatics as an autocephalous Church? To provoke schisms and divisions in the one universal and Apostolic Church of Christ?”

Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR): Ceased commemoration of Constantinople, ceased concelebration with Constantinople.

This issue has also rocked the secular geopolitical world.

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Failed Soyuz launch deepens mystery of trouble with Russian spacecraft

Aborted launch follow close on the heels of discovery of hole in Soyuz spacecraft docked to the ISS, causing great concern.

Seraphim Hanisch

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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.

German Astronaut Alexander Gerst captured this image of Soyuz launch vehicle at the time of its failure.

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 inside-ISS view of a 2mm wide hole someone drilled in the hull of the Soyuz crew vehicle, found on August 29th, 2018

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.

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