Crisis Averted As New Crew Successfully Blasts Off To The International Space Station

An earlier failed launch could have left the station operating in a risky unmanned mode.

Grigory Sysoev / Sputnik via AP

Russia’s space agency Roscosmos says it has successfully launched a replacement crew for the International Space Station, or ISS, into near-Earth orbit. Barring any complications with the manned spacecraft, the orbital facility will avoid having to spend any time in a risky uncrewed configuration. There had been a concern that that could happen after a failed launch in October 2018.

The Soyuz-FG booster rocket successfully lofted the Soyuz-MS spacecraft out of the Earth’s atmosphere after launching from the Russian-operated Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Nov. 3, 2018.  Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut Anne McClain, and Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques were on board. They are set to arrive at the ISS later today to begin a 194 day stint in space.

“The spacecraft separated from the third stage of the Soyuz-FG carrier rocket in a normal mode and at the designated time,” Roscosmos said of the launch. This usually routine announcement carried significantly more weight in this case given the accident that occurred on Oct. 11, 2018.

On that day, another Soyuz-FG had lifted off at Baikonur carrying another Soyuz-MS with Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin and American astronaut Nick Hague inside. Shortly after the initial launch, a malfunction with a booster rocket triggered an emergency safety mechanism, blasting the crew module off and sending it parachuting back down to the ground in a “ballistic descent” at a particularly high speed. Though the two occupants in the spacecraft had not made it into orbit, they were still at such a high altitude that the parachute descent took around 30 minutes in total.

Grigory Sysoev / Sputnik  via AP

From left to right, NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, and Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques. 

This was the first-ever failure for a Soyuz-FG and Russia immediately initiated an investigation to find the source of the problem in one of its primary space launch vehicles. On Nov. 1, 2018, Roscomos detailed its finding in a press conference.

Personnel at Baikonur had deformed a sensor during the assembly of one of the four strap-on boosters that attach to the Soyuz-FG’s central booster. When the strap-on boosters separate from the main rocket, this sensor is supposed to trigger a valve to open, releasing liquid oxygen and propelling the smaller boosters safety away from the remaining core.

With the broken sensor, the valve never opened, leaving the strap-on booster to slide down the side of the main rocket, causing significant damage and a loss of control. You can see the entire sequence of events in the video below.

Roscosmos said that personnel would inspect any assembled strap-on boosters for similar damage and would take steps to help prevent similar problems from occurring in the future. On Nov. 16, 2018, Russia launched another Soyuz-FG, this time with an unmanned Progress cargo spacecraft with supplies for the ISS, from Baikonur without issue.

Isolating the issue with the Soyuz-FG and launching the Soyuz-MS with Kononenko, McClain, and Saint-Jacques did not come a moment too soon. After the October 2018 mishap, there had been concerns that the next launch wouldn’t occur before the existing crew on the ISS would have to return to Earth.

The biggest issue was how long the Soyuz-MS that had brought the last crew to the space station would remain safe to use for the return trip. The spacecraft is not supposed to remain in orbit indefinitely and would be dangerous to use after a certain point.

Without a crew and with personnel monitoring the situation from the ground only, the ISS would have few, if any options to immediately respond to any potentially serious technical problems. It would also bring work on the station to a halt and possibly lead to the loss of perishable scientific experiments. In addition, scheduled repairs, upgrades, and the flight tests of new spacecraft would be delayed.

NASA

A Soyuz-MS docked with the ISS in 2016.

Thankfully, by all indications, this crisis has been averted. In 2011, another just-in-time Russian rocket launch averted a similar situation from occurring after another accident delayed the arrival of a new crew to the ISS. In this case, the cosmonauts and astronauts that are already on the station will have to stay there an extra week as part of the transition.

Still, the October 2018 Soyuz-FG failure and the scramble to get a replacement crew into orbit have highlighted a variety of important issues. At present, the U.S. government and other international partners on the ISS rely entirely on Roscosmos to get their astronauts to the station.

It remains an important example of international cooperation with Russia as the Kremlin has drawn increasing criticism for its repressive domestic political climate and aggressive foreign policy stance. Most recently, the United States and its allies, including astronaut Saint-Jacques’s home country of Canada, condemned an incident in the Kerch Strait separating the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov.

On Nov. 25, 2018, Russian forces brought a number of Ukrainian naval vessels that were legally sailing in the area forcefully to a halt. Russia subsequently seized the boats and arrested their crews, inflaming regional tensions.

NASA

The ISS.

The two countries have been in a de facto conflict since Russia illegally took control of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and began supporting separatists in breakaway Ukranian regions along the Russian border. The Kremlin had previously refused to help with extending the lifespan of the ISS in retaliation for American sanctions over Crimea.

NASA’s latest contract with Roscosmos to send its astronauts to the ISS comes up in April 2019 and the geo-political situation could make it difficult to renew. However, the United States has no alternatives ready to go. Boeing and SpaceX are working on their CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft respectively as part of the Commercial Crew Program.

Unfortunately, the inaugural flights of these craft won’t occur until the beginning of 2019. NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has publicly criticized both companies for what it says are unrealistic timelines for reaching an actual, operational capability, as well.

SpaceX

SpaceX says it plans to launch its Crew Dragon spacecraft for the first time in January 2019.

The United States only has firm plans to continue its work aboard the ISS until 2025, at which point it might look to rent space to private firms interested in space-based research and development efforts and space tourism. Russia has also said it has investigated physically splitting off its portions in the future to serve as the basis for a new space station, but in 2017 said it had no plans to actually do so.

Without further life-extension upgrades, the station itself will only remain viable through 2028. Russia and the United States have no plans at present to collaborate bilaterally or as a part of a multi-national group on a new space station.

At the moment, the ISS looks to be on course to continue normal operations at least through July 2019. It remains to be seen how the United States and other contributing countries will get new crews to the station after that and for how long.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com