Monday, October 22, 2018

The Soyuz Failure and Emergency Return

Proponents of manned space flight have looked forward to the day when space travel will be as routine as getting on a bus in Toledo to go to Chicago.  You don’t normally see national headlines when a bus breaks down, but when the Russian Soyuz rocket taking an American and a Russian astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS) last week suddenly failed and the astronauts had to be rescued by an automatic emergency system, it made the New York Times and other media outlets around the world.  So we aren’t quite there yet, and it will be some time before we can even get anyone else up into orbit.

First, the failure.  On Thursday, Oct. 11, astronauts Aleksei Ovchinin and Nick Hague took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Russian Soyuz rocket.  The first stage consists of four detachable engines on four sides of the central second-stage rocket.  Two minutes into the launch, the four first-state engines normally eject themselves and the second stage lights up to continue the flight into the orbital range of the ISS.  But according to the website which quoted Russian head of human spaceflight Sergei Krikalev, experts suspect that something went wrong with one of the first-stage engine ejection systems.  One of them may have incompletely separated and collided with the second stage.  At any rate, enough damage was detected that an automatic abort system went into action, separating the capsule containing the two astronauts from the second stage and sending it in an earthbound trajectory that produced up to 6 Gs on the pair, twice what they experience during launch.  A parachute automatically deployed, and instead of spending six months in space in the ISS, Hague and Ovchinin ended their flight only a few minutes after launch in the desert-like steppes of Kazakhstan, where they were rescued by ground crews without further incident.

We can thank the Russian engineers who designed and installed the safety systems 35 years ago in what is now a pretty old but well-understood and reliable rocket system.  Russia has had its share of space-related accidents, dating all the way back to 1967 when a parachute on the Soyuz 1 flight failed to open, causing the death of astronaut Vladimir Komarov when his capsule crashed to the ground too fast.  Simplicity and reliability seem to be watchwords with the Russian space program, and while the two astronauts are no doubt disappointed that their flight was cancelled, so to speak, they are at least alive and well to talk about it.

The current residents of the ISS are in no immediate danger, as unmanned resupply rockets are still operational and they have an emergency escape capsule at hand should something require them to leave for Earth in a hurry.  But the failure of the only current means of human access to the ISS has put a big hold on the station’s plans, and on manned spaceflight in general.

In possibly a year or so, both Boeing and SpaceX hope to begin manned flights of their own, ushering in a new era of spacecraft built by private firms dedicated to the purpose, rather than the cumbersome government public-private partnerships that have up to now been responsible for all manned space travel.  But those companies’ rockets are not ready, and if recent history is any guide, they may not be ready for several years yet. 

Unlike the race to the moon, which was basically the Cold War between the old USSR and the U. S. carried out by peaceful means, private space firms are in competition only with other firms.  So it would be better to err on the side of prudence rather than rush into manned spaceflight only to have your latest creation blow up and kill people.  The rewards awaiting companies that make it first into space with humans are by no means certain, other than the glory of the thing.  But glory is hard to take to the bank. 

Tourism is one way to make money with space, but no one believes that will support the whole enterprise by itself.  And tourists have an obstinate prejudice against running a high risk of ending up as space junk or worse, so the safety record of space flight will have to be significantly improved before anything like mass tourism can come about. 

Regarding re-crewing the space station, currently the Soyuz is the only show in town, and if the accident investigation isn’t wrapped up satisfactorily by the end of 2018, we might see a situation in which the ISS crew comes home and the empty station is piloted remotely until Russian engineers are confident in launching more astronauts with the Soyuz.  Published schedules for the ISS through 2020 do not include any plans for using rockets other than Soyuz to transport astronauts to the station, so SpaceX’s manned flights will presumably be orbital demonstrations independent of the space station itself.

If manned space flight were completely routine, it wouldn’t attract the attention and excitement it does.  In my own field of engineering, some of the best students have ambitions to get involved in private space enterprises, and they go with my blessing.  But the period we are in now may be compared to where the aviation industry was in around 1920.  Flying was still regarded as an exotic and dangerous sport, and it was not yet clear how anyone would make any serious money at it. 

We can hope that the cause of the Soyuz failure can be identified and fixed soon enough that we don’t have to depopulate the ISS, and that transportation to the station can go back to its desirable no-headlines mode.  But we can also expect that the upcoming launches of private manned space rockets will get tons of publicity, even if they’re successful.  Because taking a rocket into space is still nowhere near as routine as taking a bus to Chicago.

Sources:  I referred to news reports on the Soyuz accident carried by the New York Times on Oct. 11, 2018 at, and also the sources and  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on a list of spaceflight-related accidents and incidents, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the International Space Station. 

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