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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 make emergency landing after Russian Soyuz launch experiences failure

A NASA astronaut and Russian cosmonaut had to make an emergency landing on Earth this morning after the Russian Soyuz rocket carrying them into orbit experienced a failure during launch. The two crew members — astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin — safely landed on the ground in Kazakhstan less than an hour after liftoff and are in good condition, according to NASA. The crew took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:40AM ET. About six minutes after launch, Russias state space corporation Roscosmos said that there was a problem with the booster during the flight. The failure prompted the crew to make a ballistic reentry when the Soyuz capsule enters Earths atmosphere at a steeper angle than normal. Rescue teams reached the landing site and transported the crew out of the Soyuz capsule. Hague and Ovchinin were then flown by helicopter to Jezkazgan. Search and rescue teams report they are in contact with the Soyuz crew, who report they are in good condition. The teams are en route to the landing site. Live updates: Ballistic reentries can be intense for astronauts because they experience higher G forces. With a normal Soyuz landing, crews riding in the vehicle usually pull around 4 Gs. That can double for ballistic reentries. In 2008, a Soyuz experienced a malfunction during landing, prompting a ballistic reentry that reached up to 8 Gs. I saw 8.2 Gs on the meter and it was pretty, pretty dramatic, former NASA astronaut Pegg Whitson, who was on the flight, said in a statement, according to Wired. Gravitys not really my friend right now and 8 Gs was especially not my friend. But it didnt last too long. However, todays crew pulled just 6.7 Gs, according to a recording on NASA TV. Roscosmos has announced that it is forming a state commission to investigate the failure. The Russian state corporation says it is already studying the data from the launch. NASA says that it is also analyzing what happened. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the NASA team are monitoring the situation carefully, the space agency said in a statement. NASA is working closely with Roscosmos to ensure the safe return of the crew. Safety of the crew is the utmost priority for NASA. A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted. Roscosmos said it would not hold a press conference today. This is the second problem with a Soyuz vehicle in the last few months. In August, the crew members on board the ISS noticed that air was leaking from the station and traced the problem to a hole in one of the docked Soyuz capsules. The leak was patched up just fine, but Roscosmos has been trying to figure out how and when the hole was made. Russia ruled out the idea that it was made by a micrometeoroid impact and has suggested it looks like it was made by a drill. The incident has caused quite a bit of drama, with Russian media suggesting in-space sabotage and NASA coming out against those claims. But todays failure could have even more significant repercussions for NASAs human spaceflight program moving forward. Its unlikely that Russia will launch a crewed Soyuz mission until it has figured out what exactly went wrong during this flight. However, the Soyuz is NASAs only means of getting astronauts to the International Space Station at the moment. Two private US companies — SpaceX and Boeing — are developing vehicles to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the ISS as part of the Commercial Crew Program. However, the first crewed flights of that program are not slated to occur until summer of next year at the earliest. Meanwhile, there are still three people on board the ISS at the moment: NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, German astronaut Alexander Gerst, and Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev. The trio launched to the station on June 6th on a Russian Soyuz vehicle. However, their Soyuz capsule can only last in orbit around 200 days, meaning the crew will need to come down by the end of the year. If the Soyuz rocket is not back in operation by then, its possible the ISS may be abandoned for some unknown amount of time. We will continue to update this post when we receive more information. Update October 11th, 7AM ET : This post was updated to include more context about recent events on the space station.