What Russia's rocket failure means for human spaceflight

Grounded Soyuz leaves astronauts without ride to space station

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - An American and Russian astronaut were jettisoned away to safety a few minutes after launch Thursday when their ride to the International Space Station, a Russian Soyuz MS-10 rocket, suffered an unknown problem triggering an abort.

Shortly after launching early Thursday morning, "there was an anomaly with the booster and the launch ascent was aborted, resulting in a ballistic landing of the spacecraft," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

The cause of the failure is unknown and until it's determined, the Russian workhorse rocket is grounded -- leaving astronauts with no way to reach the orbiting laboratory.

The good news: The Soyuz abort system worked as it should. Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office Reid Wisemen said astronauts prepare extensively for this kind of situation. Both American astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin safely landed in Kazakhstan and NASA officials say they are in good health and reunited with their families.

"The Soyuz is a robust, redundant, reliable machine," Wiseman said. "And in this case, where it had an ascent anomaly, it has a great abort system that brought our crew home."

Watch the moment that abort system kicked in below:

How will astronauts get to ISS?

NASA, the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency pay Russia to launch their astronauts and bring them home from the space station. It's been eight years since NASA's space shuttle program ended.

Those launch contracts take years to negotiate, according to NASA officials. The cost of a seat on a Soyuz rocket runs more than $80 million.

After the failure Thursday, the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, suspended all launches using its Soyuz rocket until the investigation is complete.

"This is significant because they're the only way to get up there right now," Space Florida's vice president of government and external affairs Dale Ketcham said.

This is the first time the current version of the Soyuz booster with crew has had to use the abort system and the first mission-critical failure for a crewed launch to the space station, according to Spacenews.com.

Currently living on the space station are NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst and Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev. Another Soyuz capsule is docked at ISS ready to bring them back to Earth.

The Soyuz for current crew is scheduled to return to Earth in December, but certified to return home as late as Jan. 4. There is a possibility it could stay longer, International Space Station operation manager Kenny Todd said.

Could the space station be without a crew?

Todd said Roscosmos is working on assembling a commission that will investigate the failure and determine what happened. He couldn't provide a timeline or when Soyuz will be able to launch again, saying investigations of this kind depend on the available data from the flight and could take several weeks up or months.

Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin will lead the investigation and the commission has already begun working in Baikonur, reports Russian media.

If Auñón-Chancellor, Gerst and Prokopyev return to Earth as late as early next year and the Russian investigation into the failure isn't complete the ISS will remain unoccupied until Soyuz can launch again or SpaceX and Boeing are certified by NASA to launch astronauts as part of the commercial crew program.

NASA said last week the first commercial crew mission to the space station could happen late next year.

What happens to science at the orbiting laboratory if astronauts aren't on board?

Todd said the station itself is designed to operate without crew for a "significant time," if the three current crew return home without a way to launch another crew.

With no astronauts on board, many of the hundreds of science experiments and microgravity research projects will go unattended and may have to stop for the time being.

"Our goal is to get back up there and get on with the science and research," Todd said.

The Center for Advancement of Science in Space, known as CASIS, manages and brokers the hundreds of experiments on the ISS National Laboratory.

News 6 emailed the nonprofit to determine what experiments could continue without crew physically at the lab.

"At this point, we are not in a position to speculate on the future of station research," CASIS spokesman Patrick O'Neill said. "We will continue to work with our partners at NASA and be in a better position to formulate a response for the coming months at a later date."

What does this mean for commercial crew?

After the space shuttle program ended, NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing to design and build spacecraft to carry astronauts from Cape Canaveral to and from the ISS. Both companies are working toward certifying their spacecraft to carry crew onboard.

The possible cutoff from the space station won't speed up the certification process, however, it is another reason to have more than one option for human access to space.

"I'm confident NASA's not going to accelerate that and put our own astronauts at risk," Ketcham said.

Right now, NASA said the SapceX Crew Dragon's first test flight on Falcon 9 is scheduled for January, with the first possible flight with crew in June. SpaceX will launch from Kennedy Space Center’s historic launch pad 39A.

Boeing Starliner is slated to launch on its first test flight in March, with a possible crewed test flight in August. The Starliner will liftoff on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41.

NASA said it plans to update these dates monthly as the first test flights get closer.

Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin , left, and NASA astronaut Nick Hague, right. embrace their families after landing at the Krayniy Airport, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The takeaway: Human spaceflight is dangerous. What happened is a good reminder for the space community, Todd said, including commercial space companies preparing to launch astronauts and eventually, space tourists.

"You gotta have a tough stomach for it," he said.

Wiseman said astronauts and support crew think about the tragedies of Apollo 1, Columbia and Challenger every day.

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