The world’s only ride to the International Space Station is grounded. What now?
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 22, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
Nick Hague thought he knew what to expect on his first flight into space — until the unexpected happened.
“The first two minutes was a smooth ride, and it was everything that I expected,” he said in a series of interviews Oct. 16, five days after that launch. “It went from ‘normal’ to ‘something was wrong’ pretty quick.”
About two minutes after liftoff of the Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, something indeed went wrong with his Soyuz rocket. The launch abort system for the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft, carrying Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, immediately pulled the spacecraft away from the damaged rocket. It happened so quickly Hague wasn’t aware of the booster problem until after the spacecraft was safely away.
“The first thing I really noticed was being shaken fairly violently, from side to side, as that safety system pulled us away from the rocket,” he said. “Then there was an alarm inside the capsule, and there was a light up there. I knew once I saw that light that we had an emergency with the booster and, at that point, we weren’t going to make it to orbit that day.”
Hague and Ovchinin turned to their training, including simulations of such aborts, to guide the Soyuz through its descent, making a safe landing near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhastan. “We had grins from ear to ear,” Hague recalled. “He holds out a hand, I shake his hand, and then we start cracking a few jokes between us about how short our flight was.”
Investigation and consequences
The implications of the accident, though, are no laughing matter. Roscosmos, the Russian state space corporation, immediately established a state commission to investigate the accident. Speculation has focused on one of the four strap-on boosters, which may not have separated cleanly from the rocket. That could have triggered a shutdown of the second stage engine, prompting an abort.
Russian officials have promised to investigate the accident quickly, with Sergei Krikalev, the former cosmonaut who runs Roscosmos’s human spaceflight program, saying a day after the launch failure that initial findings of the investigation could be published as soon as Oct. 20. Russian media reports have suggested crewed Soyuz launches could resume as soon as late November or early December, although there has been no formal announcement by Roscosmos.
For now, though, the only means of sending crews to the International Space Station is grounded. “Obviously, this is a high priority from a Russian standpoint to go try and understand what happened,” said Kenny Todd, ISS operations integration manager, during a news conference the day of the accident. “They will put a lot of resources on trying to understand exactly what happened.”
Hague and Ovchinin were supposed to join the three people currently on the station: commander Alexander Gerst of ESA, Serena Auñón-Chancellor of NASA and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos. The three, who arrived at the ISS in early June, were scheduled to return to Earth in December.
If the Soyuz remains grounded into December, the three can stay on the ISS a little longer, but not much: the Soyuz spacecraft is only rated for about 200 days in space based on testing of the ability of the spacecraft’s components to handle the space environment. The current Soyuz at the station, Soyuz MS09, would hit that lifetime limit by late December. “There’s a little bit of margin” on that lifetime, Todd said, “but not a whole lot of margin.”
That poses the risk of what NASA calls “de-crewing” the station: having the current crew depart, leaving the ISS unoccupied for the first time in more than 18 years. That could jeopardize the station should a problem take place there without astronauts on board to troubleshoot it.
Todd played down those concerns. “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.”
However, he made clear leaving the station without a crew on board is also not desirable. “We’re going to look at what our options are to try to make sure we don’t have to de-crew station,” he said.
Another concern is the work the station’s crew can carry out with only three people on board. NASA has postponed a pair of spacewalks that had been scheduled for late October to replace batteries in the station’s power system, as Hague was one of the astronauts scheduled to perform them. Roscosmos has also postponed a spacewalk planned for November to inspect the exterior of the Soyuz MS-09 module, which suffered a leak in August from a small hole whose cause remains under investigation.
A smaller crew on the station also means less time to perform experiments. Before the accident, NASA had reported utilization slightly higher than expected, said Susan Helms, a former astronaut who serves on the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) during a meeting that took place, by chance, the same day as the Soyuz accident.
Plans for future research will have to be revisited, she said and likely pared back. “That is now up for replanning, obviously, because it was dependent on five crew members being on board and what those crew members would do,” she said.
One of the biggest users of the ISS is NanoRacks, the company that provides commercial access to the ISS for internal experiments and satellite launches. “We rely heavily on the crew,” said Mike Lewis, chief technology officer of NanoRacks. “We’re very aware that a lot of our experiments, and those of other payload developers, may have to be reevaluated.”
One saving grace, he said, is that the company has taken steps to automate many of its payloads. “We’ve done a lot of work recently toward automation, and making things so that we can control them from the ground,” he said, with about half of the payloads it’s flying capable of being run from a control room at a NanoRacks facility in Houston.
Commercial crew concerns
The reason the Soyuz accident is so disruptive to ISS operations is that it’s the only means to get people to and from the station. NASA had once hoped that, by now, this would not be the case thanks to the commercial crew vehicles under development by Boeing and SpaceX. However, the schedules for those vehicles have slipped significantly in the last few years.
A week before the accident, NASA released the latest schedules for the test flights by the two companies. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is now scheduled to perform an uncrewed flight to the station in January, followed by a crewed test in June. Those dates are two months later than the previous schedule, released two months earlier. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is now scheduled for an uncrewed test flight in March and a crewed flight in August.
ASAP, at its meeting hours after the Soyuz accident, was worried that even the new schedules were unrealistic and that the agency, concerned about a gap in ISS access, might try to cut corners and speed up those vehicles’ development.
“The panel believes that an overconstrained schedule, driven by any real or perceived gap in astronaut transport to the International Space Station and possibly exacerbated by this morning’s events, poses a danger that sound engineering design solutions could be superseded, critical program content could be delayed or deleted, and decisions of ‘good enough to proceed’ could be made on insufficient data,” said the panel’s chair, Patricia Sanders, adding that there was no evidence so far of NASA making decisions “detrimental to safety.”
Managers of the commercial crew programs at the two companies, speaking at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight later the same day, said that while they could look at ways of speeding up work on their vehicles if needed, safety remained first and foremost.
“You have to do the same work. You have to do the right work,” said Benji Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX. “The question is whether there’s a way you can compress that schedule. You don’t look at in terms of cutting out work.”
“We look at it in terms of, ‘Could I work extra shifts or put extra people on it?’” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial programs at Boeing’s space exploration unit. “It never crossed our mind to think what could you not do, what scope can you reduce.”
Ready to fly again
At a news conference in Moscow Oct. 12, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine sounded optimistic that Soyuz would fly again close to its original schedule, obviating the worst-case scenarios about the future of the ISS.
“I fully anticipate at this point that we will fly again on a Russian Soyuz rocket,” he said, “and I have no reason to believe at this point that it won’t be on schedule.”
Bridenstine praised NASA personnel and their Russian counterparts for their work in the moments after the accident. “I have so much confidence in this relationship, I have so much confidence in the NASA team,” he said.
Hague made similar comments in his interviews. “In terms of whether I have second thoughts about the Soyuz, this has only helped to solidify my appreciation for how robust that system is,” he said, thanking the personnel who build the Soyuz, and in particular its launch abort system, several times.
For now, Hague is back home in Houston with his family and expects to get a short-term assignment from NASA’s Astronaut Office soon. No decision has been made about when he might get another chance to go to the station, but Russian officials have said he and Ovchinin could fly as soon as next spring.
“I don’t have a clue as to what’s in store for me, but I can say that I’m ready to go 100 percent,” he said when asked if wanted to fly on the Soyuz again to the ISS.
“I’m super thankful that I’m alive and kicking today,” he added.