Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague landed safely downrange in Kazakhstan on Thursday after a Soyuz booster failure cut short their ascent into orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome toward the International Space Station. The emergency landing was the first Soyuz in-flight abort since 1975.
The scary aborted launch that stressed both astronauts with a “ballistic reentry” force of nearly 7 g’s came 50 years to the day when Apollo 7 was launched as the first manned flight on the path to the Moon.
The abort was automatically initiated when a problem was detected with the Soyuz second stage. Details are forthcoming, but initial reports say one of the four side booster rockets hit the rocket when they jettisoned at 30 miles high, sending the space vehicle into an emergency separation and landing.
Last week’s brush with death will have some serious repercussions on the management of the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting 250 miles high for the last 19 years with humans aboard.
The failure of the second stage of Russia’s Soyuz rocket triggered an automatic and complex series of events on the spacecraft, also called Soyuz MS10. Everything worked as the spacemen plunged back into Earth’s atmosphere in a brutally steep and dangerous reentry. The capsule landed under its parachute 34 minutes after launch about 200 miles from the launch pad. It took rescue teams an hour to reach the men, who landed safely under a parachute.
In October 1968, the 10-day Apollo 7 mission restored confidence in the Moon Race against the Soviet Union after three astronauts died on during launch pad tests two weeks before the first flight of an Apollo Command Module. The deaths of space veterans Gus Grissom and Ed White, and rookie Roger Chaffee on Jan. 27, 1967, in what’s called the Apollo 1 fire, caused an 18-month delay as shoddy workmanship in the spacecraft was revamped.
America was challenged to “go to the Moon before the end of this decade…not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard” by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Ironically, had JFK not been murdered, the Apollo 1 deaths might have been the end of the Moon dream. Instead, there was a national consciousness that President Kennedy’s goal should be fulfilled to show the world what a free democracy can achieve—and in July 1969 Apollo 11 won the Moon Race against the Communist Soviet Union, then double-downed on JFK’s famous challenge when Apollo 12 landed in November 1969.
In 1975 a three-man Apollo and two-man Soyuz spacecrafts docked in space in an act of détente orchestrated by President Richard Nixon to ease tensions between the Superpowers. That was called the Apollo/Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), but astronauts and cosmonauts would not shake hands in Earth orbit again until 1995 when the Space Shuttle took Russians into space and docked with the Russian MIR Space Station.
The nine Shuttle docking missions with MIR left an American astronaut on-board with two other cosmonauts, some from Russian allies. The experience led to the cooperation to build the ISS beginning in 1997 with 15 other space-faring nations.
When President Barrack Obama mothballed the Space Shuttle program with the last launch in July 2011, America had to turn to the Russians for access to the ISS, built with 35 Shuttle missions. Their cramped, three-person spaceship was first successfully flown in 1968 (the maiden flight in 1867 killed a cosmonaut on reentry), and the Soyuz has gone through decades of upgrade, though looking much the same on the outside.
But that seat on a Russian spaceship has a price, and NASA now pays $70 million for each astronaut roundtrip to the ISS.
Expedition crews on the ISS are rotated out about every 5 months. There is always three people on “Station” as NASA calls it. Right now, “on Station” are Expedition 57 crew, European Space Agency commander Alexander Gerst, Russian Sergey Prokopyev and American Serena Aunon-Chancellor. Their lifeboat is the Soyuz which ferried them up in August. They have enough supplies for another six months at least. A Progress supply ship was to be launched on a Soyuz rocket in late October. But that won’t happened until the problem in the failed second stage is resolved.
The resupply mission by SpaceX and their unmanned Dragon spacecraft becomes very important in November. SpaceX’s manned Crew Dragon spaceship is in competition with Boeing’s Starliner for bragging rights of the first private company launching humans into space. Both can hold four astronauts. But neither will happen until unmanned flight tests to the ISS that are scheduled early next year. Those may have more importance than ever as it was hoped by mid-2019 that Americans once again are rocketed to the ISS from United States soil at Kennedy Space Center.
Meanwhile, the aborted flight of Soyuz MS 10 underscores the extreme danger and benefits of intense training for all stages of manned spaceflight.
Which bears two questions? Will space veteran Ovchinin and rookie Hague get another shot at the mission they trained for? And is that all NASA—and American taxpayers—get for their $70 million ticket to ride?