NASA boss Jim Bridenstine says he's confident the next Russian Soyuz rocket carrying crew and gear to the International Space Station will launch "on schedule."
That may come as a surprise to anyone who remembers as far back as October 11, the day Soyuz flight MS-10 was unexpectedly truncated while en route to the orbiting station. A booster failure forced its crew of two astronauts – one American, one Russian – to head back to Earth just after blastoff.
Thankfully, they landed in one piece, which is more than could be said about the rocket they were attached to. In-flight abort systems ensured the capsule holding the men was whisked away to safety, albeit on a ballistic trajectory and a rather uncomfortable landing.
As NASA administrator, Bridenstine is obviously privy to additional details, giving him such confidence in a launch system that a few short days ago nearly resulted in tragedy. However, Bridenstine's bullish tone at a press conference in Moscow following the MS-10 failure was markedly different from the more cautious line taken by space station operations manager Kenny Todd, who spoke just after the “anomaly.”
"I fully anticipate that we will fly again on a Soyuz rocket and I have no reason to believe at this point that it will not be on schedule," Bridenstine told reporters.
I recently held a press conference in Moscow about the Soyuz launch failure and our cooperation with Russia related to space activities. Despite our political differences, our relationship with Russia in space will continue to stay strong. pic.twitter.com/7AuTDrHci9— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) October 14, 2018
According to Todd, NASA has scheduled a mid-December Soyuz launch to the space space, and urged people to be patient while Russian and American boffins investigate the cockup prior to that launch. Todd also explained how un-crewed operations on the space station might work, if the platform has to be abandoned, although would not be drawn on how long the orbiting lab could remain in such a configuration.
Bridenstine, meanwhile, insisted that the possibility of the ISS being temporarily deserted was “extremely remote.” Regarding the failed rocket, he said: “We have a really good idea of what happened. We want to figure out why it happened.”
Roscosmos head honcho Dmitry Rogozin had no qualms about his mighty rockets, and assured the stricken crew of Soyuz MS-10 that they would be heading back to the heavens in “the spring of next year.” Lucky boys.
Here's Rogozin giving the pair – Aleksey Ovchinin and Nick Hague – a not-in-any-way-awkward hug of confidence...
Мы вернулись в Звёздный. Ребята обязательно полетят. Планируем их полёт на весну следующего года. pic.twitter.com/vmEu86Sntd— Дмитрий Рогозин (@Rogozin) October 12, 2018
Soyuz MS-11 is due to go up on December 20, two weeks before those aboard the orbiting platform must return to Earth. Right now, NASA’s Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Roscosmos’ Sergey Prokopyev, and ESA’s Alexander Gerst are manning the space station, and were due to return on December 13 via a Soyuz lifeboat capsule attached to the station, and be replaced by those aboard Soyuz missions MS-10 and 11.
Hence the worries about an un-manned ISS, given the failure of MS-10 and concerns over the safety of MS-11: the trio of astronauts up there right now must come back by early January, and have the means to do so via their lifeboat. They have enough supplies to last into the new year, although their capsule cannot spend much longer in orbit – its certification expires after 200 days in space, at which point it can't be safely used. So they have to return by early January.
This means Russia must conclude its investigation and implement any changes in less than two months, in order to put the replacement crew into orbit by mid-December – otherwise, the station will be left unmanned when the current team bail out.
To put that in context, it is now approaching two months since a hole was found in the wall of the Soyuz capsule attached to the station in orbit, and other than a bit of finger-pointing, NASA and Roscosmos have yet to reach a conclusion of how or why the hole was made. The hole, possibly caused by the careless use of a drill, is not part of the capsule that will return to Earth, mind you.
A rapidly disassembling rocket is quite a bit more serious than someone blundering with a drill. The exact cause of the explosion remains publicly unknown, although sources have pointed at the abnormal Korolev Cross indicating that one or more of the strap-on boosters may have made contact with the rocket during separation.
As it stands, Soyuz MS-11 is due to launch on December 20 with three crew, and Soyuz MS-12 will follow in April 2019. Presumably Rogozin plans to bump that mission down the roster in favor of the MS-10 crew. ®