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Today’s failed Soyuz launch complicates the future of the International Space Station

This mornings Russian Soyuz rocket launch turned dire just two and a half minutes after liftoff when an unknown failure forced the flight to abort and sent the two astronauts on the vehicle on an unexpected landing. The emergency maneuver was a success, but the aftermath puts NASA in a precarious situation: now, the space agency must find a way to continue operations on the International Space Station without its usual equipment. The Soyuz is currently the only vehicle that can take humans to and from the ISS, and the rocket is now grounded from human spaceflight for the foreseeable future. That means NASA may not be able to send astronauts to the station for a while, which could eventually leave the ISS without a crew. Fortunately, the two-person crew on board todays flight was able to land safely. NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin took off in the Soyuz from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:40AM ET. Just a few minutes after launch, they experienced an issue with the Soyuz vehicle right around the time of first stage separation, which is when the four boosters surrounding the main body of the rocket break away. The duo was about 31 miles high, just below the threshold of space. Immediately, the Soyuz capsule initiated its abort sequence, separated from the rest of the rocket, and performed a ballistic reentry — when a vehicle comes in much steeper than a normal descent. The pair then landed in Kazakhstan after pulling about 6.7 Gs. I hope they get down safe. Thats the only thing that was going through my mind at that moment in time when I was watching that play out in real time, Reid Wiseman, NASAs deputy chief astronaut said during a press conference about the failure. When I heard the first calls from the crew, there was a huge sigh of relief. Its unclear at this point what caused the failure, though Russia says it has already opened an investigation to determine the cause. We have every confidence that our Russian colleagues will figure out whats going on, Kenny Todd, the ISS mission operations integration manager, said during the press conference. But for now, NASA no longer has a method to get its astronauts to the space station, and the crew that is already on board the ISS has to come down eventually. Right now, there are three people aboard the station: NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency, and Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev. These three crew members only have one way to get home: the Russian Soyuz capsule that brought them there in the first place. Their Soyuz, MS-09, has been docked with the ISS since June 8th, when the crew first arrived. However, Soyuz capsules cant last in space forever. Theyre only meant to remain in orbit for 200 days, so this vehicle will presumably need to come down by the end of December. Its possible that this lifetime can be stretched to January, but at some point, the Soyuz will need to return to Earth, and it will probably have to carry its three-person crew. That leaves NASA and Russia in a sticky situation: the station could be left without any people on board. It wouldnt be the first time the ISS has been unstaffed. The orbiting lab went for months at a time without crew when it was first being built in the late 90s, but back then, it was only a few modules strung together. Since November 2nd, 2000, the ISS has always had people on board, so this would be the first break in crew in nearly 20 years. NASA is already looking at ways to avoid such a gap. As a program, were going to look at what our options are to try to make sure we dont have to de-crew station, said Todd. And thats an ongoing thing that we always do when it comes to trying to manage the overall flight program: to ensure that weve got crews on board to do the jobs we need to get done. Its possible that Russia could launch another empty Soyuz capsule to dock with the International Space Station, helping to extend the time of the current crew on board by another 200 days. Russia is already going through the motions to prepare a Soyuz vehicle and rocket combo for a planned launch of three crew members on December 20th. That is still moving forward and could possibly fly. The Soyuz rocket may be grounded from sending crew to the ISS, but the vehicle might be able to launch a capsule without crew as a test. Then, it could dock with the ISS and provide another lifeboat for the crew on board. However, if that plan doesnt pan out, NASA says it is ready for the possibility of an empty space station. Thats something were always prepared for, in terms of being able to support not having a crew, Todd said. He noted that the crew will be looking at some of the robotic systems, pumps, and other instruments to make sure that NASA can continue to manage the station from the ground in case theres no one around to take care of it in space. I feel very confident that we could fly for a significant amount of time, Todd said. Indefinitely could be a very, very long time. Were not there because our goal is to get back up there and get on with the science and the research that we need to do. NASA has been working for years on new ways to get its astronauts to the ISS. Through the space agencys Commercial Crew Program, two private companies — SpaceX and Boeing — have been developing vehicles to transport astronauts to and from the ISS. Those vehicles are not ready to take up the mantle yet, though. The two companies are scheduled to conduct uncrewed test flights of their spacecraft starting early next year, during which their vehicles will launch and dock with the space station without people on board. If those tests are successful, then the companies will perform the first flights of their vehicles with crew in the summer. But its a requirement for NASA that the space station is crewed when those initial test flights occur, according to Todd. We want to have crew on board because we want them monitoring, he said. The fact of the matter is that the space station is a $100 billion international asset for the world. So we definitely — when we start talking about these demonstration flights — having a crew on board, being able to monitor these vehicles as they approach, its certainly a very important thing. That means the first flights of the Commercial Crew Program could be delayed if the ISS is evacuated. Todd said it was too early to speculate on how this will affect the programs future. However, delays in the Commercial Crew Program would stretch the amount of time NASA remains reliant on the Soyuz vehicle. Currently, NASA pays more than $70 million for one seat on the Soyuz to get its astronauts to space. The Commercial Crew program is meant to end that financial arrangement, allowing American astronauts to launch on American-made rockets again. But if the Soyuz is out of commission for long and the space station has to be de-crewed, that means NASA wont be able to test out its vehicles in order to get off of Russian technology. Ultimately, NASA doesnt seem that worried just yet, and Todd says theres plenty of time until the next crew is supposed to launch in December. Were going to have to let that play out a little bit, he said. The good news is weve got some runway to allow the Russians to go do some of that initial work to see if they cant get this narrowed down relatively soon. Perhaps the most immediate problem NASA has is rearranging the astronauts schedule. The space agency was set to perform two spacewalks over the next two weeks, and the now-grounded astronaut Hague was supposed to be involved in one of them. Well have to go look at that plan closely to see what makes sense about the spacewalk, Todd said. Even though theres a lot of work ahead, the overall mood at NASA seems to be one of relief after experiencing a harrowing morning. The first thing I want to really stress overall is that this is, in my opinion, a good news story, said Weisman, adding, The crew is already back on the ground in Baikonur, and theyve been reunited with their families. Rachel Becker contributed to this report.

Astronauts land safely after Soyuz launch fails at 20 miles up

A fault in a Soyuz rocket booster has resulted in an aborted crew mission to the International Space Station, but fortunately no loss of life. The astronauts in the capsule, Nick Hague (U.S.) and Alexey Ovchinin (Russia) successfully detached upon recognizing the fault and made a safe, if bumpy, landing nearly 250 miles east of the launch site in Kazakhstan. This high-profile failure could bolster demand for U.S.-built crewed spacecraft. The launch proceeded normally for the first minute and a half, but at that point, when the first and second stages were meant to detach, there was an unspecified fault, possibly a failure of the first stage and its fuel tanks to detach. The astronauts recognized this issue and immediately initiated the emergency escape system. Hague and Ovchinin in the capsule before the fault occurred. The Soyuz capsule detached from the rocket and began a ballistic descent (read: falling), arrested by a parachute before landing approximately 34 minutes after the fault. Right now thats about as much detail on the actual event as has been released by Roscosmos and NASA. Press conferences have been mainly about being thankful that the crew is okay, assuring people that theyll get to the bottom of this and kicking the can down the road on everything else. Although it will likely take weeks before we know exactly what happened, the repercussions for this failure are immediate. The crew on the ISS will not be reinforced, and as there are only 3 up there right now with a single Soyuz capsule with which to return to Earth, theres a chance theyll have to leave the ISS empty for a short time. The current crew was scheduled to return in December, but NASA has said that the Soyuz is safe to take until January 4, so theres a bit of leeway. Thats not to say they can necessarily put together another launch before then, but if the residents there need to stay a bit longer to safely park the station, as it were, they have a bit of extra time to do so. The Soyuz booster and capsule have been an extremely reliable system for shuttling crew to and from the ISS, and no Soyuz fault has ever led to loss of life, although there have been a few issues recently with DOA satellites and of course the recent hole found in one just in August. This was perhaps the closest a Soyuz has come to a life-threatening failure, and as such any Soyuz-based launches will be grounded until further notice. To be clear, this was a failure with the Soyuz-FG rocket, which is slated for replacement, not with the capsule or newer rocket of the same name. SpaceX and Boeing have been competing to create and certify their own crew capsules, which were scheduled for testing some time next year — but while the Soyuz issues may nominally increase the demand for these U.S.-built alternatives, the testing process cant be rushed. That said, grounding the Soyuz (if only for crewed flights) and conducting a full-scale fault investigation is no small matter, and if were not flying astronauts up to the ISS in one of them, were not doing it at all. So there is at least an incentive to perform testing of the new crew capsules in a timely manner and keep to as short a timeframe as is reasonable. You can watch the launch as it played out here: