The flight of two Expedition 57 crew members ended about two minutes into the flight when an abort event occurred. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider
If NASA needed additional cause to accelerate the agency’s Commercial Crew Program – it received it this morning. As of this writing, none of the 16 nations involved in the International Space Station Program have a means of traveling to the lab.
After July of 2011 and prior to Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018; cosmonauts and astronauts have traveled to the ISS via the Russian Soyuz rocket and spacecraft duo. This morning that system encountered a failure that caused an abort resulting in Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague to touch down back on Earth – far earlier than expected.
A disappointed Nick Hague holds his wife after the Oct. 11 abort. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA
NASA held a press conference at noon (EST) at the space agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas to provide details about the anomaly. NASA Public Affairs Officer Brandi Dean noted in her opening remarks that it had been “an eventful day.”
That day began with a Soyuz-FG rocket lifting off from Launch Complex 1 at the Baikonur Cosmodrone and after about two minutes into the flight an abort scenario unfolded.
After the launch vehicle had left the pad, everything appeared to be normal with the rocket’s first stage performing as its counterparts have done so many times in the past with the stage separating and the strap on boosters falling away. It is at this point that things went as it is referred to in the space community “off nominal.”
The crew on board became aware there was a problem had occurred via a booster emergency light, this let them know that there was a problem with the ascent stage. Shortly thereafter their abort motors fired to life. The MS-10 crew were then accelerated very quickly and away from the booster. The crew then activated the ballistic reentry mode. By all accounts the crew performed flawlessly during this incident. They were not alone in being praised for their professional handling of what must have been a stressful situation. The launch team on the ground remained in contact with Hague and Ovchinin throughout the event.
“I hope they get down safe, that was the only thing going through my mind,” Wiseman said.
The MS-10 duo spent an estimated 34 minutes in a ballistic landing trajectory before touching down. Search and Rescue teams were essentially waiting for them and the pair were recovered shortly thereafter. Officials with NASA stated that the SAR team was with the cosmonaut/astronaut “immediately.”
During the sequence of events that took place before they landed, the intended Expedition 57 crew members encountered some rotation of the vehicle as well as 6 to 7 times Earth’s gravity. They appear to have endured this with little-to-no impact to their health.
Roscosmos will now open a commission to discover what wrong during Thursday’s flight and to determine how to prevent similar problems on upcoming missions that use Soyuz. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA
Estimates provided by NASA placed the MS-10 spacecraft at about 31 miles (50 kilometers) in altitude (the Kármán Line, places the “border” of space at around 62 miles or 100 km) when the abort occurred.
“This is, in my opinion, a good news story,” The Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office, Reid Wiseman said. “The crew is back on the ground and have been reunited with their families. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is there, he has been meeting with the crew and so, certainly from the crew perspective, we’re well trained for an abort, we never anticipate one but we kind of expect one and our procedures walk us through each phase of the ascent and which phase we’ll be in. So you’re ready at all times for that abort.”
The Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, will now open an investigation as to the cause of the accident under a “commission.” Investigations are something Roscosmos is getting additional experience with of late. This makes the second investigation in less than six weeks that the agency has had to open.
The last of these reviews was opened after a pressure leak that originated from the MS-09 Soyuz on August 30 was detected. While quickly discovered and repaired, the source of the leak, a small hole drilled into the spacecraft, caused Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin to make statements involving sabotage and threats of criminal charges.
Given that another Soyuz spacecraft has encountered yet another problem in so short a time span – raises concerns about the agreement NASA has with Russia to fly NASA astronauts on Soyuz spacecraft at a cost of approximately $75 million a seat. NASA’s International Space Station Operations Integration Manager, Kenny Todd deferred the question of whether NASA would have to pay for the unfulfilled MS-10 mission.
In terms of this latest mishap, Todd, stated that the commission’s investigation would begin “soon” and that the U.S. Space Agency anticipates whatever findings are made will be shared with NASA.
Today’s dramatic turn of events will have some impact on the station’s current residents: European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst (commander), Roscosmos cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev (flight engineer) and NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor (flight engineer). The trio is currently scheduled to be on board the ISS through December. This should provide Roscosmos with the better part of two months to understand what caused the accident and to correct this deficiency.
In the short term, the failure of MS-10 to reach orbit means upcoming extra-vehicular activities (EVAs) will not take place as they were originally envisioned.
“The one activity that we’re taking a hard look at this point is our EVA plans, we had planned to do a couple of spacewalks over the next two weeks and we’ll be looking hard at that since one of our EVA spacewalkers is still on the ground,” Todd said. “We’ll have to look at that plan closely and see what makes sense in terms of how we conduct those spacewalks.”
The Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office, Reid Wiseman, stated that while it was unfortunate today’s vehicle failure ended with the best possible outcome – the return of the crew to their families. Photo Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA
At present, and given that the $100 billion station’s complement will have two less personnel on board, the orbiting lab is well stocked with supplies.
For long term operations at the station, the pause in Soyuz flights could have a significant impact. Given there are no crew-rated spacecraft currently in service and the one that was is now under investigation, there is no means to launch anyone to the station.
Each Soyuz spacecraft has an operational “life’ of about 200 days. This raises the concern the ISS could, if whatever today’s accident was caused by is not discovered soon enough, could be left without a crew. This is actually something NASA has prepared for. In fact, if required, the station could be operated by controllers on the ground.
Throughout the course of the day, NASA officials repeatedly expressed support for and confidence in their Russian colleagues.
While the launch’s outcome might have been less than a resounding success, Todd and Wiseman noted that, in the end, the success of Soyuz’s abort procedures ensured the safe return of Hague and Ovchinin and that was the most important factor to be considered.
“It’s the entire international partnership that makes up the International Space Station. There’s a number of countries around the world that help make this project happen. Clearly over the last seven years we have relied in the Russians to help get our astronauts into space and that partnership has continued to grow,” Todd said. “I think the ability to work through issues, the openness that gets displayed on both sides…I won;t say it’s unparalleled, but certainly we’re very proud of the relationship that we here at NASA [have] with our Roscosmos and Energia friends that we’ve developed through the years.”