NASA’s top official suggested 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, which sent the crew on a harrowing escape from the outer edge of the stratosphere.
“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,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters.
That could mean another launch before mid-December, when the three-member crew on the space station – an American, Russian and German – was scheduled to end their six-month mission.
“No changes have been made. The investigation is underway,” Bridenstine added.
Russian space launches were suspended Thursday after the booster malfunctioned about two minutes from liftoff – about 31 miles above the surface – with NASA’s Tyler N. “Nick” Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin aboard. Both men landed safely on the grassy steppes of Kazakhstan after jettisoning away in their capsule.
Russian rockets are the only way to reach the orbiting laboratory, but Bridenstine said the rocket failure – Russia’s first such incident in the post-Soviet era – had not tarnished his view of the venerable Soyuz rockets.
“Not every mission that fails ends up so successful,” he said, referring to the safe return of Hague and Ovchinin.
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 an expanse more than 200 miles from the Russian-operated Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Russian technicians are conducting an investigation into the rocket failure. Bridenstine said they have a “really good idea” on the cause.
“I think the investigation is going to go swiftly,” he said, but gave no further details on the preliminary findings.
Sergei Krikalyovi, the head of Roscosmos’s manned programs, said one of the rocket’s four boosters failed to separate from the main stage. All Soyuz flights, both manned and those carrying vital supplies such as food and equipment, have been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.
Hague and Ovchinin remained under medical observation Friday.
Recalling the moment Bridenstine realised something had gone awry with the launch, he said hearing Hague speak Russian confirmed his fears.
“My immediate reaction was, ‘Things are not going well. He’s not speaking English.” Hague’s words – in which he described the sharp drop in gravity – were then translated into English. All members of the Soyuz crew must learn Russian.
Dmitry Rogozin, the chief of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, 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 in which he sits with the two astronauts aboard a Moscow-bound plane. “We plan that they will fly in the spring.”
Bridenstine also heaped praise on the relationship Washington and Moscow enjoy in the frontier of space, free from the deepening political disputes “we have terrestrial.”
“To keep space separate from the political environment has always been our tradition, and we want to keep that going forward,” he said.