NASA mulls ISS future as Soyuz abort investigation begins
In the wake of Thursday's launch abort of the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft, NASA and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, are determining the cause of the malfunction that resulted in the successful ballistic landing and recovery of American astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, as well as considering the future of the International Space Station (ISS). The only means of ferrying crews to and from the station, the indefinite suspension of Soyuz flights means that the space laboratory could be temporarily abandoned.
On Thursday at 4:40 am EDT (2:40 pm local time), the Soyuz spacecraft lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on what has become a routine crew transfer to the ISS. Approximately two and a half minutes into the flight, after the strap-on boosters had separated from the first stage, what has been described as an "anomaly" or an "issue" occurred in the second stage.
The nature or cause of the malfunction is still unknown, but it resulted in the descent capsule aboard the Soyuz spacecraft going into automatic emergency mode and executing what NASA Deputy Astronaut Reid Wiseman called a "ballistic entry." That is, explosive bolts separated the capsule from the Soyuz and sent it into a slow spin to make it aerodynamically stable, though the crew were subjected to a force of six or seven gees. Parachutes then deployed and the capsule landed south of the city of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, where the crew were met by waiting paratroopers and emergency teams.
According to NASA, Hague and Ovchinin were in good condition and sent to a local hospital by helicopter as a precaution before returning to Baikonur where they were greeted by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin, and other officials. The space agency says that the pair are resting comfortably and that Hauge will be flying home to Houston, Texas next week
Since the Soyuz is a Russian rocket and spacecraft, the accident investigation is being conducted by a Roscosmos commission, which Russian media reports is regarding the event as a criminal matter until negligence has been eliminated as a cause. NASA is providing assistance, though it had no direct part in the launch.
The problem now is how this abort will impact the ISS. The Soyuz is the only means of taking astronauts to and from the station and the two American commercial manned rockets aren't scheduled to be even demonstrated until well into next year. This means that until when or if the Soyuz is cleared for flight, there is no way to send another crew to the orbiting laboratory currently hosting Expedition 57 Commander Alexander Gerst of ESA, NASA Flight Engineer Serena Auñón-Chancellor, and Roscosmos Flight Engineer Sergey Prokopyev.
In a press conference on Thursday, ISS manager Kenny Todd said that the investigation is in its very early stages and that any statements regarding the accident or when Soyuz may fly again is pure speculation.
He claimed that there are no immediate problems anticipated for the ISS over the next two months, except that two spacewalks will have to be canceled because one of the walkers, Hague, is stuck on Earth.
The station was recently resupplied by a Japanese cargo ship with enough food and other consumables for a crew of five, so it is well stocked. In addition, the station can still be visited by other cargo ships, though the Russian Progress transport is grounded because it also uses a Soyuz booster.
However, the biggest concern is that the Soyuz spacecraft has a service life of only about 200 days with little margin for error. One is currently docked with the ISS, where it serves as both return craft and emergency lifeboat and will only remain serviceable until the end of the year. Though other Soyuz spacecraft are continuing production, if one is not available and cleared to fly by late December, the present crew may have to abandon the station.
Todd says that with the proper adjustments, the station can be operated by remote control indefinitely so long as the solar arrays are functioning. However, he also confirmed that if the Soyuz does not come back into service, returning to the ISS could be difficult if not impossible because the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Starliner have not been cleared to dock on their own, even if manned, unless there is a crew aboard the station during at least the first few visits.
Meanwhile, station operations will continue as normally as possible with a reduced crew.
Video of the NASA press conference on the Soyuz incident is available below.