Aborted launch to the ISS

At 2:40pm local time on 11 Oct at Baikonur, Expedition 57’s trip to the ISS was cut short by a booster problem that meant their launch had to be aborted only a few minutes into the flight. Both astronauts, Nick Hague and Alexey Ovchinin, returned to the Earth safely.

Over the last few years we’ve gotten used to the almost constant resupply of the ISS with both astronauts and cargo that has made the event seem almost routine. What we have forgotten is that the launch of people into space is an inherently dangerous activity and it’s only because of the nearly five decades of experiences and many tragic losses that it’s a lot safer than it used to be. 18 astronauts and cosmonauts have died since spaceflight began and others have been lost in training accidents associated with training for spaceflight. Fortunately space agencies and contractors have learned a lot from previous failures and there are now plenty of redundant systems and crew escape mechanisms.

Todays incident put into practice a system that was specifically designed to return crew safely to Earth and it worked. There will be an investigation and we will eventually discover what went wrong but thankfully this won’t be against the backdrop of tragic consequences.

Expedition 57 Crew Returns to Baikonur
Nick Hague and Alexey Ovchinin safely returned to their families (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The only other time that a crew escape system had been used was in 1983, again on a Soyuz spacecraft where the crew managed to escape before their rocket exploded. Missions to the ISS for the Russian launches have generally gone pretty well with problems mainly been associated with the return to Earth. But this latest incident will not do Roscosmos’ reputation an favours especially following a dip in cabin pressure in Soyuz MS-09 that was traced to a 2mm hole in the spacecraft. There were no further problems but it’s likely that parallels will be drawn between these two completely unrelated events.

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Hague and Ovchinin getting ready to launch (Credit: NASA)

The Soyuz MS-10 is the latest in a long line of spacecraft that stretch back to the 1960s and the spacecraft has been hugely successful. The latest versions, annotated with “MS” are upgraded versions of the previous Soyuz TMA-M. The first launch of the new upgraded Soyuz was on 7 July 2016. It had upgrades to navigation and guidance systems but other than that it is pretty similar to the work horse Soyuz design going back decades. Today’s failure seemed to be a problem with the rocket which occurred at about the time the four boosters are supposed to separate, about 2 minutes after launch. Normally what happens is the boosters fall away in unison and make the shape of what is known as a Korolev Cross (named after the designer of the R-7 rocket). At about that point the launch was aborted and the crew came back to the surface via a ballistic path. This is a much rougher ride that would normally be experienced in a standard reentry with higher G forces. Fortunately everything went well and the crew made it back safely.

The rocket that launches the Soyuz spacecraft is the Soyuz FG which has had a faultless launch reliability until today with 55 successful launches since its inception in 2001. The FG is based on the design of the R-7 rocket which had its origins as an early ICBM in the late 1950s. The rocket configuration is made up of a core stage and four liquid rocket boosters and weighs 305,000kg. The first stage is powered by RD-108A rockets engines that can generate around 200,000 pounds of thrust.

The challenge for the ISS now is that the remaining crew on board have until about mid December to make use of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft for the return to Earth. There’s a real possibility that the ISS may have no human occupants for the first time in 20 years until either the Russians get up an running again or the US starts it’s first commercial flights to the ISS.