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Space

Aborted launch astronauts may head to International Space Station this year: Nasa head says

Administrator Jim Bridenstine said investigators have a ‘really good idea’ what went wrong and a scheduled launch in December could still go ahead

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2018, 6:11pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 October, 2018, 11:36pm

Nasa’s top official suggested on Friday that a new mission to the International Space Station could take place this year after Russian experts address the cause of a Soyuz rocket malfunction and the crew’s harrowing escape from the outer edge of the stratosphere.

“At this point, we have not made any changes to the schedule. No changes have been made. The investigation is underway,” Nasa Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters.

That could mean another launch before mid-December, when the three-member crew of the space station was scheduled to end their six-month mission.

Bridenstine said experts have a “really good idea” what caused the booster to malfunction about two minutes into Thursday’s launch with Nasa’s Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin aboard.

“I think the investigation is going to go swiftly,” he said, but gave no further details on the preliminary findings.

Hague and Ovchinin jettisoned in an escape capsule from the Soyuz MS-10 rocket about 50km (31 miles) above the steppes of Kazakhstan.

The capsule’s parachutes deployed, but the descent was steep and fast. Nasa said Hague and Ovchinin experienced more than six times the force of gravity before tumbling onto a grassy expanse more than 320km (200 miles) from the Russian-operated Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

They remained under medical observation on Friday, but no serious health problems were reported.

The chief of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, promised that both men will be given another chance to reach the space station.

“The boys will certainly fly their mission,” Rogozin tweeted, posting a picture of him sitting with the two astronauts on a Moscow-bound plane. “We plan that they will fly in the spring.”

Thursday’s accident was the first serious launch problem experienced by a manned Soyuz space mission since 1983, when a crew narrowly escaped before a launch pad explosion. Russia is now under pressure to prove its space programme is safe or face losing lucrative fees to carry US astronauts into space.

Moscow said it would suspended all manned space launches until it finds out what went wrong and Rogozin has ordered a state commission to investigate. Russia’s Investigative Committee has also opened a criminal investigation.

Sergei Krikalev, a senior Roscosmos official, said on Friday Russia may also delay an planned unmanned cargo shipment by a Progress spacecraft to the ISS. Unmanned cargo launches carry food and other supplies to the ISS and use the same rocket system as the Soyuz. Russia says there is enough food on board to last until April.

Three people are now aboard the space station: a German, a Russian and an American.

Thursday’s mishap occurred as the first and second stages of the Russian rocket separated shortly after the launch from Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era Baikonur cosmodrome.

The Interfax news agency on Friday cited a source familiar with the Russian investigation as saying that an important valve had failed to open due to a faulty firing cartridge. That in turn had hindered the separation of the first stage of the rocket from its second stage.

Nasa has relied on Russian rockets to ferry astronauts to the space station since the US retired its Space Shuttle programme in 2011, although the agency has announced plans for a test flight carrying two astronauts on a SpaceX commercial rocket next April.

Space is an area of cooperation between the United States and Russia at a time of fraught relations. Asked about the mishap, President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House he was “not worried” that American astronauts have to rely on Russia to get into space.

Rogozin tweeted shortly before Thursday’s failed launch that he had signed a contract to send the first astronaut from the United Arab Emirates to the ISS. Interfax cited a source on Friday a saying that was now probably going to be delayed by six months.

Additional reporting by The Washington Post