One of the most technologically beautiful things you’ll ever see is a Soyuz rocket screwing up. Soyuz rockets don’t screw up often — another beautiful thing — but one did Thursday at 2:40 PM local time, over the steppes of Kazakhstan. What unfolded was a master class in how things go right when things go wrong.
The rocket was intended to carry veteran Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and rookie NASA astronaut Tyler “Nick” Hague up to low-Earth orbit for a six month stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS), joining a crew of two astronauts and one cosmonaut already aboard. Two and a half minutes after launch, the four clusters of engines that surround the rocket’s core stage shut down and fell away as they are designed to do. The central core was then supposed to ignite and then carry the crew further.
That procedure is always a jolt for the crew, and a live-streaming camera inside the Soyuz spacecraft indeed showed Ovchinin and Hague getting knocked around a bit. But the knocking continued, and then Ovchinin called down “failure of the booster,” according to a CBS transcript.
It’s not clear yet what that failure was, but video taken from the ground showed the four clusters tumbling through the sky, which is normal, along with other unidentified debris, which isn’t.
At that moment, small rockets attached to a slender tower at the top of the Soyuz spacecraft that houses the crew did precisely what they were supposed to do, which was to ignite instantly and pull the capsule up and away from the malfunctioning rocket. “We are in weightlessness,” Ovchinin reported, as the spacecraft, at a safe distance, arced over and began a plunge to the ground.
Their fall to Earth was along what is known as a ballistic trajectory — a steeper-than-normal reentry angle that subjects the crew to seven times the typical pull of gravity (crews train for much more than that in centrifuges). Minutes later, the spacecraft thumped down on the Kazakh steppe just 250 miles from the launch site, and helicopter recovery crews were soon on the scene. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine quickly tweeted that bit of good news. “NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin are in good condition following today’s aborted launch,” he wrote. “I’m grateful that everyone is safe. A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted.”
An investigation indeed should follow. It may uncover not only technological problems, but also institutional ones plaguing Roscosmos, Russia’s version of NASA. In August, a small hole was discovered in a Soyuz spacecraft attached to the ISS, damage that appeared to have been caused by an accident with a drill. Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin — known for occasionally intemperate remarks — bizarrely speculated that the damage could have been an act of sabotage by one of the crewmembers as opposed to a mere manufacturing accident, though he quickly walked the statement back. That embarrassment occurred in the context of ongoing scandals over delays and alleged embezzlement of funds associated with the construction of Russia’s planned new launch facility, the Vostnochy Cosmodrome.
Still, even in failure, Russian engineering acquitted itself well. The Soyuz is far and away the most venerable spacecraft system ever built. It has been flying since 1967 and has so far logged 139 crewed launches. There have been only two launch failures in all that time — one in 1975 and one in 1983 — and in both cases, the crews survived. There were also two missions that resulted in fatalities: Soyuz 1, in 1967, which claimed the life of Vladimir Komarov, the only crewmember aboard; and Soyuz 11, in 1971, which killed Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev. In both cases, the problems occurred during reentry, after the crews were in orbit. In the space business — which is little different from the test-piloting business — losses like that have always been considered equal parts tragic and inevitable.
“If we die, we want people to accept it,” said American astronaut Gus Grissom, who lost his life in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967. “We’re in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”
In the contemporary astronaut and cosmonaut community, the sentiment is put much more succinctly: “Space is hard.”
There’s little glibness in that. It’s simply an acknowledgement that the key to exploring space is making it less hard, less risky, not eliminating the risk altogether. Thursday’s Soyuz failure is in no respect a good thing; it raise important questions about institutional dry-rot within the Russian space program. And it certainly raises questions about America’s continuing dependence on Russia as its only route to space. More than seven years after the last Space Shuttle flew, NASA’s promised Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft are nowhere near ready to fly, while both the SpaceX Crew Dragon and the Boeing Starliner, which were supposed to begin carrying crews to the Space Station in 2016, will not be ready to fly until 2019, if then.
Bridenstine is right that there will — and should be — a thorough investigation of the Soyuz launch failure. But if the work doesn’t include a thorough reexamination of America’s own cosmic dry-rot, then the administrator is not doing his job. Still, don’t be quick to blame the Soyuz: the rocket flew, it flamed out, and technology that was first developed in the 1960s and has been refined and refined ever since worked to ensure that Ovchinin and Hague would live to launch again.