The rough re-entry and landing experienced by three passengers aboard a Russian Soyuz TMA capsule returning from the international space station April 19 is cause for serious concern, regardless of the level of danger actually faced by the crew.
On April 24, a spokesman for the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, dismissed as “a black public relations campaign” press reports suggesting the crew members were lucky to walk away from their capsule after it came down 420 kilometers short of its target landing zone.
Perhaps. But this is the second straight time a Soyuz capsule has experienced problems returning from the space station; in each case the vehicle re-entered the atmosphere on a so-called ballistic trajectory, a steeper-than-normal, spinning descent resulting in a touchdown well short of the intended landing zone. In both instances it appears that there were problems with the separation of the Soyuz’s propulsion module from its crew-carrying descent module.
These events would be troubling enough even if they weren’t among the rash of recent
mishaps involving Russian space hardware. On March 15, for example, a Russian Proton M rocket left SES‘s AMC-14 satellite in a useless orbit following a failure of its Breeze-M upper stage. This makes three Proton failures in 25 months. In addition, a Russian-Ukrainian Sea Launch Zenit 3SL rocket failed at liftoff in January 2007, a mishap that kept this important commercial vehicle on the ground for nearly a year.
The Soyuz, Proton and Zenit vehicles are built by different companies, and in any case it could well be that Russia is experiencing an uncanny string of bad luck. The United States went through something similar during a two-year stretch in the late 1990s – six failures involving different rockets resulting in an estimated $3.5 billion in losses. A panel commissioned by the U.S. government to investigate did not find a smoking gun linking the failures, attributing them instead to a series of unrelated breakdowns in workmanship, procedures and engineering. In other words, though, there was an underlying pattern.
Three of the failures – and by far the most expensive ones – involved the U.S. Air Force’s heavy-lift Titan 4, a rocket that was nearing retirement. The investigation, known as the Broad Area Review, found that the Titan 4 program suffered from a closeout mentality in which critical engineering resources were being prematurely transferred to the follow-on launcher program.
Roskosmos, which oversees Russia’s space industrial complex, has given no indication that it will undertake a comprehensive investigation like the Broad Area Review. Perhaps it should: concerns about quality control in Russia’s space industry are becoming widespread, and not just outside the country.
Elvira Nabiullina, Russia’s minister of economic development and trade, recently released figures indicating that Russian aerospace workers are far less productive than their Western counterparts. The reason, according to various Russian experts, is antiquated manufacturing infrastructure and too many employees with not enough to do. Back in January, Col. Gen. Vladimir Popovkin, commander of the Russian Space Forces, expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of the hardware that Russia’s industry is producing. And on April 24, Proton maker Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, along with International Launch Services, which markets the vehicle commercially, announced a quality control initiative in response to the recent launch failures.
The question of whether Russia has an industry-wide quality control problem has to be on the minds of NASA officials, even if William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, publicly expressed confidence April 22 that the Russian government will get to the bottom of the problem that occurred on the latest Soyuz re-entry and correct it.
Mr. Gerstenmaier’s confidence is not unjustified: over its long history, the Soyuz has a safety track record that is second to none in the annals of spaceflight. Nonetheless, recent history should compel NASA to insist on full insight into the Russian investigation and to examine any and all findings and corrective measures with a critical eye.
Given that NASA hopes to enter negotiations with Russia this summer for Soyuz flights to the space station beyond 2011 – when the current deal for those services expires – the U.S. agency also should press for a wider examination of Russian industry trends and conditions that could adversely affect the reliability of space hardware. At the same time, Russia should continue the broad push to consolidate its sprawling space industrial complex, which by the account of its own officials is sized for a bygone era. But in doing so, Russian authorities should place a top priority on product quality, even if that means deferring sought-after gains in efficiency.