Russian rocket goes BOOM again – this time with a crew on it

'Nauts safe, but the ISS may have to be abandoned

Soyuz

Updated The post-Space Shuttle era of reliability spearheaded by Russian space agency Roskosmos came to an abrupt end this morning as the booster carrying the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft to the International Space Station failed a few minutes after launch.

The countdown proceeded normally and the venerable booster lifted off at 0840 UTC (0430 Eastern, 0140 Pacific). Everything appeared to be going well at first – after all, Russia has been launching these things for decades – until staging.

Observers noted that the staging looked a bit odd, with the usual Korolev Cross (named for the designer of the ICBM on which the Soyuz booster is based) followed by what appeared to be debris as the stages separated. An onboard video feed showed the crew being shaken more violently than normal before reporting weightlessness as the capsule separated and began a ballistic, and premature, return to Earth.

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The last failure of a Soyuz in flight was 18a in 1975, which subjected the crew to forces up to 21G as the capsule was flung back to earth after the stages of the booster failed to separate properly. It gave NASA the jitters since the Apollo-Soyuz link-up was due to occur a few months later. As with today's incident, the crew was recovered safely.

Those keen on spaceflight anniversaries (and who isn't?) will note that it is exactly 50 years to the day since Apollo took its first crewed flight, sending three astronauts around the earth to shake down the Apollo capsule. Apollo 7 was so successful (despite a slightly poorly and stroppy crew) that Apollo 8 would be cleared to head off on a high-stakes mission around the moon a few months later.

There were only two crew members aboard Soyuz MS-10, and a successful docking would have brought the station crew up to five. The current crew of three arrived at the station in June on Soyuz MS-09 and, with the craft only having a six-month orbital lifespan, must return in December or January at the latest. And yes, MS-09 is the one with the mystery hole.

With NASA highly unlikely to allow any astronauts to fly aboard the Soyuz until a full investigation is complete, there is now a real possibility the station may have to be abandoned until the US commercial crew spacecraft start flying next year.

No pressure then, Boeing and SpaceX. ®

Updated to add

NASA took to the air today to give a worried public an update on what Deputy Chief Astronaut Reid Wiseman referred to as "the anomaly". ISS Ops Manager, Kenny Todd, remarked that "It wasn't the day we planned," before hinting that NASA is dusting off procedures for decrewing the ISS.

The existing crew has until the beginning of January before the current Soyuz lifeboat must return to Earth, so NASA is still working toward the existing mid-December landing. This gives the Russians just over two months to conclude their investigation to NASA's satisfaction.

As for the possibility of an uncrewed Soyuz getting to the station to replace the lifeboat before expiry, Todd commented "Not that I know of." However, the launch date of the next Soyuz, which is currently 20 December, means that a launcher could potentially be available.

The other issue facing NASA is the arrival of the first commercial crew spacecraft next year. NASA must have astronauts onboard the ISS to deal with any problems encountered by the new vehicles. The ISS itself however, according to Todd, could run unattended up until critical systems, such as the solar array rotation mechanisms start failing.

Todd observed that for the last few years "we have relied on the Russians getting our astronauts to space". Alas, a proverb about eggs and baskets springs to mind regarding access to the multi-billion dollar ISS.




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