Soyuz contrail
An image of the Soyuz rocket carrying the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft around the time an anomaly with the rocket triggered the mission's abort. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — With Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft grounded for an indefinite period, NASA managers said Oct. 11 that they will look at ways to keep the current International Space Station crew in orbit for an extended period if needed.

During a NASA briefing held less than eight hours after the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft performed an emergency abort two minutes into its launch to the station, agency officials said they had few details about the incident and declined to speculate into the cause.

“Watching the ascent from our contingency action center here, the first stage appeared nominal,” said Reid Wiseman, NASA deputy chief astronaut. “There was first stage booster separation and then the abort occurred, and that’s really all the data that we have at this time.”

“We would be speculating” by offering any more insights into the launch failure, said Kenny Todd, ISS operations integration manager, noting the abort took place seconds after the Soyuz rocket’s strap-on boosters separated. “It was clearly in and around that time frame, but it’s very, very difficult to the untrained eye to be able to try to diagnose what was going on.”

That investigation, he said, would be left to a Russian state commission established within a few hours of the accident. “We’ll expect to hear some details on that over the next few days from our Russian colleagues,” he said.

He said it was not clear how long the investigation would last. “Obviously this is a high priority from a Russian standpoint to go try and understand what happened,” he said. “They will put a lot of resources on trying to understand exactly what happened.”

The length of the investigation is an issue since, with the Soyuz grounded, there is no means to get crews to the station. The three people currently on the station — commander Alexander Gerst of ESA, Serena Auñón-Chancellor of NASA and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos — can return to Earth using the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft docked to the station.

Soyuz spacecraft, though, have an orbital lifetime of about 200 days based on testing of the ability of the spacecraft’s components to handle the space environment. With the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft launched to the ISS June 6, that lifetime limit would be reached in late December.

“There’s a little bit of margin” on that lifetime, Todd said, “but not a whole lot of margin.” The Soyuz would likely reach the end of life by early January, he said.

Todd emphasized, though, that NASA will seek ways to avoid “de-crewing” the ISS, which would happen if the current crew left on the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft before the Soyuz returned to flight. “We’re going to have to let that play out a little bit,” he said of bringing the crew back in December as planned. “We’re going to look at what our options are to try to make sure we don’t have to de-crew station.”

The current crew, Wiseman said, would be willing to stay on the station beyond the end of the year. “I talked to the crew this morning. They’re doing great,” he said. “They’re ready to serve at the will of the program. They will stay up there as long as need them to.”

In a worst-case scenario, though, Todd said that it should be feasible to operate the ISS without a crew on board for at least a limited time. “I feel very confident that we could fly for a significant amount of time” without a crew, he said. “There’s nothing that says we can’t just continue to bore holes in the sky and do a minimal amount of commanding. I’m not too concerned about that.”

He emphasized that there was no urgency to make any decisions about station operations. The station has plenty of supplies, he said, and the only major near-term issue is rescheduling a pair of spacewalks planned for late this month that would have involved Nick Hague, the NASA astronaut on the aborted Soyuz mission.

“We certainly don’t anticipate any problems throughout the rest of their increment onboard,” he said. “I think we’ve got runway in front of us, so I don’t worry too much about at least the next couple of months from a station standpoint.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...