Russia Opens Criminal Investigation into Soyuz MS-10 Failure, Crew Reunited with Families

Russia Opens Criminal Investigation into Soyuz MS-10 Failure, Crew Reunited with Families

NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin were reunited with their families this morning (EDT) after returning to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan by airplane following an aborted launch to the International Space Station (ISS).  Investigations into what went wrong are underway and there is no estimate yet for when the Soyuz FG rocket will be ready to fly again.  The three crew members already aboard ISS are fine and ready to remain there as long as needed.

Soyuz MS-10 lifted off on time at 4:40 am EDT from Baikonur and all appeared fine during the first stage firing. But something when wrong shortly thereafter and the rocket automatically triggered an abort about 2 minutes into the flight at an altitude of about 50 kilometers.  The crew capsule separated from the rest of the rocket, Ovchinin, the Soyuz commander, manually initiated a ballistic descent mode, and the crew landed safely near the town of Zhezkazgan (formerly Dzhezkazgan).

Hague and Ovchinin are undergoing routine medical exams, but appear in good health.  NASA released photos of them as they were greeted by their families and NASA officials including Administrator Jim Bridenstine who is at Baikonur for the launch.  Dmitry Rogozin, General Director of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, was also there and traveled with the crew from Zhezkazgan to Baikonur.

NASA astronaut Nick Hague greets his wife at Baikonur Cosmodrome after Soyuz MS-10 launch abort.  October 11, 2018. Credit: NASA


Soyuz MS-10 crew Nick Hague and Aleksey Ovchinin greet their families at Baikonur Cosmodrome after aborted launch. October 11,2018 Credit: NASA


NASA astronaut Nick Hague (center left) shakes hands with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (center right) after returning to Baikonur Cosmodrome following Soyuz MS-10 launch abort. October 11, 2018. Credit: NASA

Bridenstine issued two statements from Baikonur and taped an interview for NASA TV that aired later today.  Back in Houston, ISS Operations Manager Kenny Todd and Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office Reid Wiseman held a press conference at Johnson Space Center.

Russia immediately formed an Investigative Committee (IC) to determine the cause of the failure.  Russia’s news agency TASS reports that the IC has opened a criminal investigation over violations of safety rules and “[t]he causes of the incident and the persons whose actions resulted in the emergency are being established.”

Todd said NASA will have its own investigation. He stressed that NASA and Roscosmos work “side by side” on matters like these and he anticipates close cooperation.  Asked whether there are any tensions right now because of Rogozin’s insinuation that astronauts on the ISS may have caused the hole in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft currently docked to the ISS, Todd replied that Rogozin’s comments were premature, but he believes relationships improved after a September teleconference between Rogozin and Bridenstine.

Todd and Wiseman said it was 34 minutes from when the anomaly occurred to spacecraft landing and rescue personnel were there “immediately” to meet the spacecraft and extract the crew.  Wiseman said there were a few moments when there were no communications with the crew, but the rescue forces aboard aircraft were able to quickly reestablish them.

He flew an ISS mission himself and is intimately familiar with how crews are trained to fly on Soyuz.  He stressed that the crews are well trained for aborts like this and the procedures “walk us through each phase.” “You’re ready at all times.”   He called the event a “good news story” because after the anomaly occurred, everything happened as it should have and the crew landed safely.  He estimated the crew experienced 6-7 Gs during their landing.

The biggest potential impact is on operations of the ISS.  Soyuz is the only means of getting to and from the ISS right now.  The three crew members currently aboard — NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev — are fine and can come home at any time in their Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft.  They are scheduled to be there through mid-December, but Wiseman said he spoke with them this morning and they are happy to stay as long as needed.

Supplies are plentiful and were meant to support five people, but now there are only three, so Todd does not see any problem there.  “I don’t worry much about ISS for the next couple of months,” he said, except for spacewalks.  Two are scheduled for later this month and Hague was supposed to be one of the spacewalkers. “We’ll be looking hard at that.”  Overall, however, the on-orbit situation is “very stable and very good.”

NASA pays Russia about $82 million per seat to fly on Soyuz.   Asked if NASA still must pay, Todd said he did not know how those payments work.  Separately, TASS reported that the launch was insured for $70 million at the Soglasie insurance company.

Todd said that the ISS could survive with no crew aboard for a “significant” amount of time, but does not know of a defined time limit.

That is somewhat surprising since ISS crews spend a lot of their time — about 20 percent each day — for routine maintenance according to a recent ISS crew member.

NASA has not been able to launch anyone into space since it terminated the space shuttle in 2011.  It is working with Boeing and SpaceX to develop new commercial crew transportation systems that NASA hopes will be operational next year.

Uncrewed and crewed tests of each system are needed and Todd confirmed today that crews must be aboard ISS when those tests take place to monitor them and take any actions that might be needed.  If ISS had to be decrewed, those tests could slip.  NASA just announced delays in the tests last week.

In his interview for NASA TV, Bridenstine called the crew’s actions “heroic” and emotionally praised the “NASA family” there to support the launch.  He named several of them including Bill Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, and flight surgeons who were positioned “down range” along the rocket’s flight path just in case there was an emergency like this.  “In some ways this was an amazingly successful day. … It was a tough day, no doubt, but at the end of the day the training paid off for everybody.”  The NASA team is “an impressive group of individuals, some of the smartest, most capable, best trained, and they’ve been here a long time. It is daunting, it is absolutely humbling, to be at the head of this agency, especially on a day like today”

Like Todd, he emphasized how well the two countries work together on the ISS program and he and Rogozin understand that they can accomplish much more together than separately.

Part of the reason Bridenstine is there is to hold talks with Rogozin.  He tweeted that their first meeting was yesterday.

The mystery of the hole in Soyuz MS-09 was expected to be a key topic.  Photos show the hole was drilled and the simple explanation is that a technician did it by mistake and covered it up sufficiently that it was not caught during testing. Why Rogozin would imply that it might have been done deliberately by someone aboard the ISS and, more recently, his assertion that it was not a  manufacturing defect even though that investigation is not completed yet, is bewildering.  (Russia proposed a spacewalk next month to look at that area of the spacecraft from the outside.  Whether that can be accomplished now is unclear.)

Still, in a video taped earlier this week when he was in Moscow (available on his Twitter feed), Bridenstine emphasized that his job is to strengthen the long standing U.S.-Russian space partnership. “We want to go to the Moon and we want Russia to be a major partner with us.”

This article has been updated.

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