Tonight’s Water Cooler is a follow up to the August 25th on about the launch failure of the Russian Soyuz-U variant.
As you know, with the end of the Space Shuttle program the Russians are the only nation that has the heavy lift capability to go to the International Space Station. In fact the United States has contracted with Russia to take astronauts and cargo to and from the ISS.
In August the cargo version of the venerable and normally very reliable Soyuz had a problem at 320 seconds into the launch phase when the third stage motors shut down, leaving the rocket capsule without enough speed to achieve orbit. It crashed in the far north of European Russia.
Today the BBC is reporting that there is good and bad news about the Soyuz program. The good news, such as it is, is that Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) says they know what the problem is. It seems that there was a blocked vent in the third stage that caused the failure.
The bad news is that they believe it is a production line problem and they can’t, at this point rule out that it the same problem has been incorporated into other third stage motors. They will have to be inspected one by one before the Soyuz fleet can be re-certified for human launch.
This leads to another big problem. The ISS will have to be abandoned. There is not getting around it. There will not be enough time to re-certify the Soyuz launch system before the safety certificates expires on the two Soyuz return capsules currently docked the ISS.
The capsules carry three people and are good for only 200 days in orbit. After that the fuel cells that power the craft will be depleted to a level where there is no assurance that they will have enough power to safely bring the crew home.
The first of the two capsules is going to be coming home next week. They were due to be replaced by the September 22 launch that has been canceled. The next set will return in November leaving the ISS unoccupied for the first time in a decade.
At this point there is no plan for a launch. This is, after all, rocket science and to have a very reliable launch system fail is a serious threat to human life and not something to be taken lightly. Until the Roscosmos team can assure that they will not have another failure like the August 24th one, all variations of the Soyuz rocket will remain grounded.
I am fairly pleased with the Russian response. The grounding of the fleet is the right thing to do, given that the Soyuz crash was the second they had in August. This tends to indicate that there is something seriously amiss in the Russian launch program. They did have success in launching a Russian version of GPS a week after the Soyuz-U crashed.
If they can continue to build on that kind of success and do not take any risks then the absence of humans from the ISS will be as short as a three to six months. But if they bow to pressure (and there is going to be lot starting the day the space station switches over to ground control) and have a launch failure with a human crew it could be years before we reclaim out outpost in the sky.
We have been going to space with such regularity that people may forget that it is the single most deadly environment humans have ever worked in. To even get there we have to burn tons of liquid oxygen and kerosene. That is before we get to space where radiation and vacuum wait for the single mistake that will kill humans.
Here is hoping that our hard won expertise in this area allows a safe return to Low Earth Orbit.
What is on your minds tonight Firedogs? The floor is yours.