The Soyuz Failure and Emergency Return

Proponents of manned space
flight have looked forward to the day when space travel will be as routine as
getting on a bus in Toledo to go to Chicago. 
You don’t normally see national headlines when a bus breaks down, but when
the Russian Soyuz rocket taking an American and a Russian astronaut to the
International Space Station (ISS) last week suddenly failed and the astronauts
had to be rescued by an automatic emergency system, it made the New York Times and other media outlets
around the world.  So we aren’t quite
there yet, and it will be some time before we can even get anyone else up into

First, the failure.  On Thursday, Oct. 11, astronauts Aleksei
Ovchinin and Nick Hague took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Russian
Soyuz rocket.  The first stage consists
of four detachable engines on four sides of the central second-stage rocket.  Two minutes into the launch, the four
first-state engines normally eject themselves and the second stage lights up to
continue the flight into the orbital range of the ISS.  But according to the website which quoted Russian head of human spaceflight Sergei
Krikalev, experts suspect that something went wrong with one of the first-stage
engine ejection systems.  One of them may have
incompletely separated and collided with the second stage.  At any rate, enough damage was detected that
an automatic abort system went into action, separating the capsule containing
the two astronauts from the second stage and sending it in an earthbound
trajectory that produced up to 6 Gs on the pair, twice what they experience
during launch.  A parachute automatically
deployed, and instead of spending six months in space in the ISS, Hague and Ovchinin
ended their flight only a few minutes after launch in the desert-like steppes
of Kazakhstan, where they were rescued by ground crews without further incident.

We can thank the Russian
engineers who designed and installed the safety systems 35 years ago in what is
now a pretty old but well-understood and reliable rocket system.  Russia has had its share of space-related
accidents, dating all the way back to 1967 when a parachute on the Soyuz 1 flight
failed to open, causing the death of astronaut Vladimir Komarov when his
capsule crashed to the ground too fast. 
Simplicity and reliability seem to be watchwords with the Russian space
program, and while the two astronauts are no doubt disappointed that their
flight was cancelled, so to speak, they are at least alive and well to talk about

The current residents of the
ISS are in no immediate danger, as unmanned resupply rockets are still operational
and they have an emergency escape capsule at hand should something require them
to leave for Earth in a hurry.  But the
failure of the only current means of human access to the ISS has put a big
hold on the station’s plans, and on manned spaceflight in general.

In possibly a year or so, both
Boeing and SpaceX hope to begin manned flights of their own, ushering in a new
era of spacecraft built by private firms dedicated to the purpose, rather than the
cumbersome government public-private partnerships that have up to now been
responsible for all manned space travel. 
But those companies’ rockets are not ready, and if recent history is any
guide, they may not be ready for several years yet. 

Unlike the race to the moon,
which was basically the Cold War between the old USSR and the U. S. carried out
by peaceful means, private space firms are in competition only with other
firms.  So it would be better to err on
the side of prudence rather than rush into manned spaceflight only to have your
latest creation blow up and kill people. 
The rewards awaiting companies that make it first into space with humans
are by no means certain, other than the glory of the thing.  But glory is hard to take to the bank. 

Tourism is one way to make
money with space, but no one believes that will support the whole enterprise by
itself.  And tourists have an obstinate
prejudice against running a high risk of ending up as space junk or worse, so
the safety record of space flight will have to be significantly improved before
anything like mass tourism can come about. 

Regarding re-crewing the space
station, currently the Soyuz is the only show in town, and if the accident investigation
isn’t wrapped up satisfactorily by the end of 2018, we might see a situation in
which the ISS crew comes home and the empty station is piloted remotely until
Russian engineers are confident in launching more astronauts with the
Soyuz.  Published schedules for the ISS through
2020 do not include any plans for using rockets other than Soyuz to transport
astronauts to the station, so SpaceX’s manned flights will presumably be
orbital demonstrations independent of the space station itself.

If manned space flight were
completely routine, it wouldn’t attract the attention and excitement it
does.  In my own field of engineering,
some of the best students have ambitions to get involved in private space
enterprises, and they go with my blessing. 
But the period we are in now may be compared to where the aviation
industry was in around 1920.  Flying was
still regarded as an exotic and dangerous sport, and it was not yet clear how anyone
would make any serious money at it. 

We can hope that the cause of the
Soyuz failure can be identified and fixed soon enough that we don’t have to
depopulate the ISS, and that transportation to the station can go back to its
desirable no-headlines mode.  But we can also
expect that the upcoming launches of private manned space rockets will get tons
of publicity, even if they’re successful. 
Because taking a rocket into space is still nowhere near as routine as
taking a bus to Chicago.

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