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A Soyuz crew makes an emergency landing after rocket fails


It is not clear how long the Soyuz vehicle will be grounded. On Thursday in Kazakhstan, at 4:40am EDT, a Soyuz rocket took off carrying NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin toward the International Space Station. The ascent proceeded normally until the separation of one of the rocket's booster stages, by which point the crew had already experienced microgravity. Because the Soyuz spacecraft did not reach orbit at the point of this booster failure, the crew was forced to make a rapid ballistic descent likely under high g-forces. After about 20 minutes of uncertainty, Russian officials confirmed the crew were ok and had landed about 20km east of Dzhezkazgan, a city in central Kazakhstan. As rescue crews arrived, Hague and Ovchinin were reported in "good condition" and found out of the capsule. Little additional information has been provided. Roscosmos, the Russian firm that operates the nation's space agency and is responsible for Soyuz launches, will not hold any news conferences today. The head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, said a state commission has already been established to study the accident. This failure raises serious questions about the future of the International Space Station, as, since the space shuttle's retirement in 2011, the Soyuz spacecraft and rocket were the only means by which crews have been able to reach it. With Thursday's failed launch, just three people remain on the station: American astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, German ISS Commander Alexander Gerst, and Russian Sergey Prokopyev. It is not clear how long the Soyuz vehicle will be grounded or how long the current crew can remain in orbit. NASA's own transportation system, the commercial crew vehicles under development by SpaceX and Boeing, have yet to take uncrewed test flights to the station, and those are unlikely to occur before early 2019. The first crewed flights would not take place until several months after that, unless the space agency is willing to take additional risks with those missions. China has a human space flight capability, but it has no crew missions planned before 2020, and NASA is barred by Congress from working with the Chinese Space Agency. Several recent problems with the Soyuz launch system will complicate the investigation. In December 2016, a Soyuz-U rocket carrying an uncrewed Progress spacecraft laden with 2.6 tons of food, fuel, and other supplies lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Following a normal launch, first-, and second-stage firings, things started to go wrong for Progress MS-04 at about six minutes into the flight, also with a booster issue. The spacecraft was lost. The rocket that launched Thursday was a slightly more modern Soyuz-FG booster. Moreover, there was a problem with the last Soyuz spacecraft, which launched in June, when a small leak was found in the vehicle's orbital module in space in August. Russian officials have been coy about what caused the problem, even intimating that a NASA astronaut may have drilled the hole while in space. An investigation is ongoing, but what most likely happened is that a worker accidentally damaged the spacecraft at some point during the manufacturing or integration process. This could have happened during the manufacturing phase at RSC Energia's facilities in Samara, Russia or at the processing and integration facilities in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, from where the spacecraft was launched. In the wake of this most recent mishap, NASA released a statement just last week saying it had full confidence in the Soyuz rocket and spacecraft that was launching Thursday morning. NASA's administrator, Jim Bridenstine, was actually in Kazakhstan for the launch. This story will be updated with additional information when it is available.

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.