By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Russia’s space agency says that it has suspended all Soyuz launches pending an investigation into the problem that forced a harrowing emergency landing, but the head of its manned program said Moscow still hopes to send a crew to the International Space Station (ISS) in December.
Meanwhile, Jim Bridenstine, the chief of U.S. space agency NASA, praised the Russian space program and said he also expected a new crew to go to the ISS in December despite the incident.
“I fully anticipate that we will fly again on a Soyuz rocket and I have no reason to believe at this point that it will not be on schedule,” he told reporters in Moscow.
Roskosmos announced the suspension on October 12, a day after U.S. astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksei Ovchinin returned safely to Earth in a “ballistic descent” after their flight was aborted following lift-off from the Baikonur facility in Kazakhstan a day earlier.
The agency said the emergency was caused by a collision of the first and second stages of the rocket during the first stage separation.
Hague and Ovchinin arrived on October 12 at the Russian space center for medical checks following the failed launch.
U.S. and Russian space officials said the two were in good condition even though they experienced a gravitational force that was six to seven times more than is felt on Earth.
The failed launch left it unclear when the next manned mission could be sent to the ISS, whose current crew had been slated to return from the station in December.
Sergei Krikalyov, the cosmonaut who heads the manned spaceflight program at Roskosmos, said that the next manned mission to the ISS had been scheduled for December “and we are still counting on that date,” the state-run news agency TASS reported.
However, he added: “Of course, it will all depend on the results of the [investigation]” into the October 11 debacle.
He said it was likely that, if a crew is sent to the the ISS in December, it will be the astronauts who had been ready as backups for Hague and Ovchinin.
String Of Planned Launches
Meanwhile, Roskosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said on Twitter that space authorities plan to send Ovchinin and Hague up in the spring of 2019.
The two men “will definitely have their flight,” he tweeted.
“We plan to organize the flight in the spring of next year,” Rogozin tweeted.
While Russian rockets have experienced an array of glitches in recent years, the latest mishap was the first to be experienced by a manned Soyuz space mission since 1983, when a crew narrowly escaped before a launchpad explosion.
The suspension of Soyuz flights could affect a string of planned launches and returns to Earth. While Krikalyov did not give a specific date, the next Soyuz mission had been scheduled for December 20 and was supposed to take a new three-person crew to the International Space Station.
ISS Operations Integration Manager Kenny Todd told a press briefing in Houston late on October 11 that it’s not clear how long the Soyuz operations will be grounded.
“If it’s two months or six, I really can’t speculate on that,” he said. “The fact that this crew didn’t get to orbit, we feel bad for them. But we have confidence that our Russian colleagues will figure out what’s going on and we’ll hopefully see Nick and Aleksei in orbit at the space station soon.”
The European Space Agency is making contingency plans for three current space station crew members — German Alexander Gerst, American Serena Aunon-Chancellor, and Russian Sergei Prokopyev.
They all were scheduled to return to Earth in mid-December, but may have to stay aboard the station longer. There is enough food for the crew to last several months as the station is regularly resupplied by unmanned Japanese and American spacecraft.
But Todd said NASA is dusting off its plans for operating the space station without a crew, just in case the Russian investigation drags into next year.
He said the current space station crew can stay on board only until January — just a month beyond their scheduled December return — because their Soyuz capsule, which has been docked at the station since June, has limited battery life and is only good for about 200 days in orbit.
$100 Billion Asset
If the Russian rockets remain grounded until it’s time for the crew to come home, flight controllers could operate the station without anyone on board, Todd said. It could operate like that for a long time, barring a major equipment failure, he said.
But it will need to be staffed again before private space companies SpaceX or Boeing launch their planned manned missions next year, Todd said.
Given that the space station is a $100 billion asset, he said, it needs to have someone on board for the arrival of the first commercial manned missions, for safety reasons.
NASA mothballed its space-shuttle program in 2011, and since then has been paying Russia about $80 million for each trip ferrying a U.S. astronaut to the station.
The contract with Russia ends in late 2019, and the U.S. space agency has deals with the two American companies to step in at that point.
Sending astronauts to the ISS will be a first for a privately owned company.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX will be using its Falcon 9 rockets. Since 2012, SpaceX has launched satellites for NASA, and has carried out 16 resupply missions to the space station.
An unmanned Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon capsule is scheduled for launch in January 2019, with a similar manned launch set for June 2019.
For Boeing, launches are set for March and August 2019.
Despite NASA’s publicly expressed confidence about the effects of a suspension in Russian Soyuz launches, some space officials expressed concern privately that it could affect important scientific research that is being conducted on board the station, which serves as an orbiting laboratory in space.
Moreover, both SpaceX’s and Boeing’s rocket programs have run into delays, as is often the case in the aerospace industry.
Any further delay of planned launches by SpaceX or Boeing could hold up the approval of their manned launch programs. This could mean that the first astronaut they would send into orbit would not depart until 2020 instead of 2019.