Gerstenmaier Confident Station Won't Need to be Destaffed

Gerstenmaier Confident Station Won't Need to be Destaffed

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEO), said today that he is “very confident” that Russia’s Soyuz rocket will be cleared for launching crews into space before the International Space Station (ISS) would have to be destaffed.

Speaking at a Space Transportation Association (STA) luncheon today, Gerstenmaier steered clear of the topics most people in attendance probably wanted to hear about – the Space Launch System, the new HEO Mission Directorate, commercial crew. Instead, he presented a very interesting and sometimes humorous discussion of “decision fatigue” both in the context of one’s own life and in the lives of organizations. Later, however, he answered a few questions about the human spaceflight program.

With regard to staffing the ISS and getting the Soyuz rocket recertified for launching crews, he pointed out that if the Soyuz rocket had failed at the same point in its trajectory with a Soyuz spacecraft aboard, instead of the robotic Progress cargo spacecraft, the crew could have made a safe ballistic return to Earth. If the launch vehicle had failed a few seconds later, they could have aborted to orbit. While they would not have been able to reach the ISS, they could have made a “more normal” landing from orbit. Thus, for a crewed mission, such a launch failure would be more important from a mission success standpoint than safety.

Indeed, a Soyuz spacecraft did fail to attain orbit in 1975. Called the “April 5th Anomaly” or “Soyuz 18A,” a two-man Soviet crew intended to dock with the Salyut 4 space station landed in Siberia instead because of a third-stage failure. They were safely recovered. The Soyuz spacecraft has encountered a number of anomalies over the more than 40 years it has been in use, including two that ended in fatalities – Soyuz 1 in 1967 and Soyuz 11 in 1971. There was another close call in 1983 when the Soyuz launch vehicle caught fire on the launch pad and the crew was pulled away by the emergency abort tower, landing 3 kilometers away. The two-man “Soyuz T-10A” crew survived and each flew on subsequent missions.

Gerstenmaier’s point was that from a safety standpoint, if the type of failure that doomed Progress M-12M occurred on a crewed flight, the crew would have been OK. But it would have mission failure because the crew would not have reached the ISS.

He also stressed that the ISS program would be in the same predicament even if the space shuttle was still available. The Soyuz spacecraft not only takes crews to and from the ISS, but they remain docked at the ISS as lifeboats. Without Soyuz spacecraft, there would be no lifeboats, so crews could not remain for long duration missions anyway.

It should be noted, however, that if the shuttle were still flying, short missions could be flown while the shuttle remained docked with the ISS, even if the long duration missions had to be put on hold.

Gerstenmaier said that the Russians had “outbriefs” today on their current understanding of what went wrong on Progress M-12M, but he offered no details. A Babel Fish translation of a statement from the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, today refers to a blockage that caused the gas generator of the third stage engine to fail, attributing it to a “manufacturing defect” that is “random.”

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