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.
NASA officials seemed pretty chill at today's news conference. On Thursday, a Soyuz rocket suffered a catastrophic failure at around the time the second stage began to separate from the first stage. At that moment, the spacecraft's escape system automatically fired, carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin into a ballistic return to Earth. They later landed safely in Kazakhstan. The incident has raised a number of questions about what actually happened, what this means for the International Space Station going forward, and what this means for the commercial crew program. In this article, we're going to try to answer some of those questions based upon a NASA briefing that Ars attended in Houston as well as discussions with several officials including former astronauts and aerospace engineers. What happened to the rocket? No one is saying for sure, although a Russian investigation has already begun. What we know is that at about two minutes, there was some sort of failure with the first stage of the rocket and/or its strap-on boosters. (Rumors are circulating that perhaps one or two of the boosters didn't properly separate from the first stage). What happened to the crew? "We know during their ascent that, certainly, this happened very, very quickly," said NASA deputy astronaut chief Reid Wiseman during the agency's news conference. "On the order of less than a second, they had a booster-emergency light illuminate in the Soyuz. We know that that light came on, which signaled that there was an anomaly with the ascent stage. Their abort motor fired, and that's very quick. I would call that an acute onset of g. Very brief, but very high, to get them away from the booster. "So now they're in their reentry module, and the first thing we heard them report is that they had sensed weightlessness because they had been removed from the booster and they were now free-falling back to Earth. Then the next call that we had from them is that they were feeling fine. We are well-trained for all of these events, and the crew handled their procedures exactly as we had planned." Later, Hague and Ovchinin returned by plane to Baikonur in Kazakhstan and were united with their families. Soon, they will fly to Star City near Moscow and take part in the investigation. How long will the investigation take? In our experience, the Russians look at these things quickly. But Kenny Todd, the space station's mission operations integration manager, did not put a time frame on that during the news conference. "We'll expect to hear some details on that over the next few days from our Russian colleagues," he said. But it will take longer to determine precisely what had happened and how the Russians will get the Soyuz rocket and spacecraft back into service. "Obviously, this is a high priority from a Russian standpoint to go try to understand what happened with this booster," he said. "It's my speculation that they will put a lot of resources into trying to understand exactly what happened. I would anticipate that they would try to do that sooner rather than later. But we'll have to see where the data leads, whether that's a month or two months. I really can't speculate on the length of it." Who is on the station, and how long can they stay there? Three people remain on the station: American astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, German ISS Commander Alexander Gerst, and Russian Sergey Prokopyev. They were due to return to Earth in mid-December. "Talked to the crew this morning—they're doing great," the deputy astronaut chief, Wiseman, said. "Everybody is in good spirits. They're ready to serve at the will of the program. They will stay up there as long as we need them to." The crew has consumables for months and could be re-supplied by two US cargo ships as well as a Japanese vehicle. The bigger question is the health of the Soyuz spacecraft docked to the station. Generally, these vehicles are rated to survive about 200 days on orbit, and the certified lifetime of the vehicle at the station ends in early January. That could be pushed back a little but not too much, officials said. Could the Soyuz on orbit be replaced? Yes. Three astronauts—American Anne McClain, Canadian David Saint-Jacques, and Russian Oleg Kononenko—were scheduled to launch to the station in mid-December aboard a Soyuz vehicle. If the Russians and NASA aren't fully confident in that launch vehicle, a Soyuz spacecraft could possibly be launched empty to the station and replace the existing Soyuz as a lifeboat for the three astronauts on orbit. This would give the on-orbit crew another 200 days. "The vehicle that's going to bring up a replacement crew is moving through its normal development process," Todd said. "Our Russian colleagues would choose how best to handle that situation, and that's all still T.B.D." Can the ISS be operated from the ground? NASA's strong preference is to keep astronauts aboard the station. But Todd said NASA does have procedures for operating the station without crew on board. "That's something that we're always prepared for," he said. "I feel very confident that we could fly for a significant period of time." There is no set period of time. As we understand it, the large space station can be controlled from the ground through its normal operations. However, the risk is that something goes wrong—perhaps with an ammonia pump or with the solar arrays—that cannot be fixed from the ground. In this case, the $100 billion space station would probably be lost. That would be a catastrophic outcome given that NASA and its partners spent 15 years building it, at great cost, and have only begun reaping its research rewards. Where are the commercial crew vehicles? They're not ready yet, and Todd was in no great mood to talk about possibly accelerating the availability of SpaceX's Dragon or Boeing's Starliner on Thursday. "We're about eight hours into what was a pretty major anomaly here with this Russian vehicle," he said. "I can promise you we haven't thought too far out for what it means for the commercial crew program. I'm thinking maybe some of the CCP people might be thinking about it." One possibility floated is accelerating the uncrewed demonstration flight of the Dragon back into late 2018 and flying an operational crew on that spacecraft in mid-2019. This is probably the soonest we could expect either of the commercial crew spacecraft to carry people into space, and even that might be a stretch given NASA's relatively risk-averse posture when it comes to human spaceflight. Do Roscosmos and NASA trust each other? This is a question we asked Todd because of a problem with the last crewed Soyuz spacecraft, which launched in June. In August, the crew found a small leak in the vehicle's orbital module and patched it. Russian officials have been coy about how the leak was caused, even intimating shortly after the leak's discovery that a NASA astronaut may have drilled the hole while in space. This is a preposterous theory that caused significant heartache at Johnson Space Center and elsewhere in NASA. Todd sought to downplay any tensions resulting from this. "Back in that time frame, certainly, we thought that the comments were premature in terms of statements that were made by the Russian side," Todd said. "But once our administrator and [Roscosmos Director Dmitry] Rogozin got together and compared notes—talked about how we approach this situation— it seemed to be there was a bit of a misunderstanding, and at least they worked through that problem." Todd suggested the leak issue won't affect the current situation. How did it come to this? In 2014, I wrote a long story about NASA's drifting human spaceflight program, which dug into the appalling failure by the US government to prepare for the retirement of the space shuttle— it had nearly a decade's notice—and articulate a plan for what came next. Chris Kraft, NASA's legendary flight director, told me, "Its fairly obvious that no one in the government thought through what they were about to bring about when they made that decision." He's right. Congress dithered on supporting the commercial crew program, and then once SpaceX and Boeing were properly funded, those companies ran into the inevitable technical issues that arise with spacecraft. So we've been reliant on the Russians for more than seven years now, and having a single-point failure mode in a critical element like access to space has now burnt the spaceflight enterprise. Badly. So what do you think will happen? The NASA officials seemed pretty chill at today's news conference. They exuded confidence. I think they believe the Russians, who have flown the Soyuz vehicle for half a century, will identify the issue with Thursday's launch, fix what needs to be fixed, and get back into service within a few months. Barring that, Russian and US engineers will probably look at sending up an empty Soyuz, or they will convince themselves the vehicle on orbit is safe to remain there as a return spacecraft until January or February of next year. Everyone we've talked to today has seemed confident that NASA won't get into a posture where it has to de-crew the station. Over the next few months, we'll see if they are correct.