NASA chief says agency plans to launch crew on Soyuz in December

Enlarge / The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft is seen in this false-color infrared image as it launched with Expedition 57 Flight Engineer Nick Hague of NASA and Flight Engineer Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos, on Thursday, October 11, 2018. NASA

Less than two weeks ago, a Soyuz rocket took off with a Russian cosmonaut and a NASA astronaut riding in a Soyuz capsule. The launch proceeded normally for about two minutes until the rocket experienced a problem, and one of the Soyuz's emergency escape systems fired automatically and pulled the crew vehicle away from the booster. After a few seconds of rapid acceleration, the crew capsule carrying Aleksey Ovchinin and Nick Hague made a relatively normal, safe return to Earth.

In the wake of the accident, NASA officials expressed confidence in the ability of the Russian space agency to identify the problem with the Soyuz rocket and implement a fix. "It's my speculation that they will put a lot of resources into trying to understand exactly what happened," Kenny Todd, the International Space Station's mission operations integration manager, said at the time. "I would anticipate that they would try to do that sooner rather than later."

Russian officials have said that they intend to complete their investigation of the Soyuz failure by the end of October, and their report will include recommendations on how to fix the problem. Anonymous sources quoted in Russian media say the problem occurred because one of the Soyuz rocket's side-mounted boosters was improperly attached to the rocket core. This booster struck the core when it was supposed to fall away during launch, triggering a launch abort.

Successful failed launch

On Tuesday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine felt confident enough in the Russian investigation to declare that the next crewed Soyuz launch will occur in December. "We're fully anticipating" putting a crew on that rocket, he said at a meeting of the National Space Council. Investigators have a "really, really good idea" about what occurred during the errant launch earlier this month, he said.

Moreover, Bridenstine praised the reaction of the Soyuz capsule to the rocket error and its life-saving features that protected the crew members on board. "While this was a failed launch, it was probably the single most successful failed launch we could have imagined," Bridenstine said.

To validate their confidence in the Soyuz rocket, Russian officials are planning to conduct three launches of the venerable booster between now and December. These flights will include a Russian intelligence satellite, a Russian GPS satellite, and a Progress vehicle to resupply the station. If these flights go well, the next crewed Soyuz launch would occur in early December and carry Russian Oleg Kononenko, Canadian David Saint-Jacques, and American Anne McClain to the station.

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