Bridenstine confident in Soyuz return to flight despite quality concerns

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Despite concerns about quality control in Russia’s human spaceflight program in the wake of two incidents, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he was confident the Soyuz would return to flight safely by the end of this year.

In questions after a luncheon speech at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium here Oct. 25, Bridenstine praised the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos for their openness in the investigation of the accident that triggered the abort of the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft two weeks earlier.

“Roscosmos has been very transparent with NASA on the failed launch of the Soyuz,” he said. “We have really good data and, in fact, we’ve got really good imagery that we have seen.”

That investigation, Roscosmos said in an Oct. 20 statement, should conclude with a final report Oct. 30. While neither Roscosmos nor Bridenstine have offered technical details about the cause of the failure, the focus has been on a problem during the separation of the four side boosters of the rocket that damaged the core stage, possible due to poor workmanship.

“We are very confident that we know what happened,” he said. “We’re learning about why it happened.”

He added that three launches of the Soyuz rocket are planned before the vehicle is used to launch a crewed spacecraft. One of those, of a military satellite, took place late Oct. 24 from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia and was apparently a success, although Russian officials have offered few details about it. Two others, one of a Progress cargo spacecraft for the International Space Station and the other carrying the MetOp-C European weather satellite, are scheduled for November.

Bridenstine reiterated statements he made at the Oct. 23 meeting of the National Space Council that he expected crewed Soyuz flights to resume in December. “I am very confident with where we are, that we will launch again in December and that there will be no gap in human activity on the International Space Station,” he said.

The Soyuz launch failure took place less than a month and a half after the ISS crew discovered a small hole in the orbital module of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft currently docked there. The cause of that hole remains under investigation.

At the luncheon, Bridenstine was asked if both the launch failure and the damaged Soyuz spacecraft had caused concerns about the Russian space program. He acknowledged it did. “Yes, there are concerns. We have concerns. Russia has concerns,” he said.

However, he cited the long history of U.S.-Russia cooperation in space and a desire not to jeopardize it by commenting on the Soyuz investigation before it is completed. “I don’t want to prejudge,” he said, citing a statement made earlier by the general director of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin. “He said he doesn’t want to comment on the hole before the investigation is over because, if he does, it will put a hole in his relationship between Roscosmos and NASA.”

He did criticize earlier “salacious” reports about the hole, which he did not specify but likely are those in Russian media in September that attempted to blame incident on American astronauts on the station. Those comments, he noted, happened when the investigation was being done by a company rather than by Roscosmos.

“I have all the confidence in the world that nobody is in jeopardy at this point” because the Soyuz hole has been repaired, he said. “I certainly don’t want to put into jeopardy the relationship between Roscosmos and NASA.”

In his prepared remarks, Bridenstine focused on NASA’s exploration plans and national space policy. The exploration architecture, he said, would emphasize sustainability and reusability, centered on the Gateway, which he dubbed a “command module” in cislunar space.

“We want the entire architecture between here and the moon to be reusable,” he said. “We want reusable tugs from Earth orbit to lunar orbit. We want a reusable command module in orbit around the moon so that it will be there for 15 years. We want reusable landers that can go back and forth to the surface of the moon from that reusable command module.”

Some observers, though, have noted that one key element of the exploration architecture, the Space Launch System, is not reusable. He used his speech to emphasize his support for the SLS even though it is expendable.

“I am for SLS,” he said to applause from attendees at the event not far from the Marshall Space Flight Center, which leads SLS development. “What SLS is going to give us is more upmass than we’ve ever had before in human history, with longer fairings. We’re going to be able to take more capability deeper into space than ever before. That’s what SLS represents.”

“If we want to build that reusable architecture, SLS and Orion are critical pieces of doing that,” he said. “While SLS may not be reusable, it is important for building that reusable architecture.”