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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
The crew are in good condition after a "ballistic descent." Astronauts Nick Hague of NASA and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin are reportedly safe after making an emergency landing following the failure of their Soyuz spacecraft booster. After what looked like a routine launch, the crew were on their way to the international space station (ISS) when the booster, one of four around a central rocket, malfunctioned. NASA reported that the crew was forced to make a "ballistic descent," at a rapid speed with higher-than-normal g-forces. Shortly after the news of the descent, the capsule was sited under parachute in Kazhakstan, according to Gerry Doyle from Reuters. It touched down soon after, and the crew has made contact with ground rescue teams. Rescues crews are en route and should arrive to the Kazakhstan landing site at about 6:30 AM ET. "I just rode a malfunctioning booster for a few minutes and had to abort," said one of the astronauts. NASA has confirmed that Hague and Ovchinin are in contact with rescue crews, and that they're in good condition, though no doubt a little shook up. Roskosmos general director Dmitry Rogozin put it more succinctly: "The crew has landed. Everyone is alive," he said. NASA confirmed the incident was caused by "an anomaly with the booster," which caused the ascent to be aborted. The agency also confirmed that Hague and Ovchinin are in "good condition" and were transported to a training center outside of Moscow. A full investigation is the works, so more information should be available in the weeks to come. Update 10/11/2018 5:25 AM ET: The article was updated to include details of the landing and condition of the crew. 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: "I just rode a malfunctioning booster for a few minutes and had to abort" probably stretches the definition of "fine," but it's great news they are healthy and safe: Update 10/11/2018 10:29 AM ET: This article was updated to include NASA's statement. The full statement appears below. "The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to the International Space Station at 4:40 a.m. EDT Thursday, Oct. 11 (2:40 p.m. in Baikonur) carrying American astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin. Shortly after launch, there was an anomaly with the booster and the launch ascent was aborted, resulting in a ballistic landing of the spacecraft. "Search and rescue teams were deployed to the landing site. Hague and Ovchinin are out of the capsule and are reported to be in good condition. They will be transported to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia outside of Moscow. "NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the NASA team are monitoring the situation carefully. 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."