While the Soyuz spacecraft has been delivering crews to space for decades, with a history of reliability over that time, changes in the industry mean that Russia is now struggling to keep its spaceflights safe, said an expert on the Russian space program. However, he said he does expect more safety checks ahead of the Expedition 58 launch on Dec. 3, which will include a U.S. astronaut.
"The Russian space industry has a lot of troubles, like growing cost, economic and technological inefficiency, troubles with human capital, and so on. All that means that the factories sometimes lose the quality of manufacturing," Pavel Luzin, a Russian researcher and consultant whose fields of expertise include the Russian space program, told Space.com in an email.
"[Recent] emergency cases with Soyuz manned spacecrafts affect the reputation of [a] Russian space industry that already has been damaged in previous years, as [has] the international reputation of Russia as a trusted partner in outer space," Luzin added. [Experience a Soyuz Spacecraft Landing with This Amazing 360-Degree Video]
New issues with Soyuz
Soyuz spacecraft have been used since the 1960s; two fatalities occurred in the program, in 1968 and 1971, but since then, every crew has survived launch and re-entry. Russia has used Soyuz to dock with multiple Soviet and Russian space stations, and the country continued using the spacecraft to reach the International Space Station (ISS)after the complex's construction began almost exactly 20 years ago, in 1998.
Starting in 1981, NASA began bringing most of its astronauts to space using the space shuttle (a program that itself experienced two sets of crew fatalities, in 1986 and 2003). That program was retired in 2011, when the space station's construction was completed. As a result, NASA has needed to purchase Soyuz seats for its astronauts to access the space station; as of mid-2018, the cost was more than $70 million per person for each mission.
The Russians, however, reliably delivered crew after crew to the space station — until this year. Two problems arose in recent months. The first occurred with the Soyuz that brought the Expedition 56 crew to space on June 6, 2018; while the launch was flawless, the astronauts and NASA mission control discovered a leak in the spacecraft in late August that was traced to a probable drill hole. An investigation into the cause is ongoing. (Note that the leak is in a part of the capsule that does not re-enter Earth's atmosphere when the spacecraft returns.)
"We continue this investigation. The results may probably be ready when the current crew returns from the station, i.e., after Dec. 20," Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, said in a Nov. 19 report from the Russian state news agency TASS. He added that Roscosmos and NASA had worked closely together to mitigate the danger, including by creating scenarios in which the crew onboard would evacuate — although this wasn't needed, as the astronauts quickly plugged the hole with epoxy resin.
Then, on Oct. 11, 2018, the Expedition 57 crew lost their chance to go to space, when the Soyuz rocket carrying their Soyuz spacecraft (the two share a name) experienced a malfunction. The abort system on the spacecraft worked flawlessly, and the crew safely landed on Earth; meanwhile, an investigation into the cause showed that a deformed sensor stopped the rocket from working properly.
Roscosmos speedily wrapped up the investigation, taking approximately a month to determine the cause. The investigation was performed jointly with NASA, and in comments shortly after the abort happened, NASA said it planned an independent flight-safety review ahead of the Soyuz being authorized to send crews aloft again. This apparently did happen, as Soyuz was cleared for flight again in November.
"The investigation was speedy because the cause of emergency was clear. When you know the minute and second of the incident, you know what works during this time," Luzin said. "So, it is much more easy to analyze the situation. Compare this with the leak at Soyuz MS-09. Currently, the investigation didn't provide us with any reasonable explanation [for] what was wrong during the process of the Soyuz's manufacturing and preparing for launch."
The ISS has been continuously crewed since the year 2000. That persisted even during difficult times, such as when several supply ships failed en route to the space station in 2015 and after the fatal space shuttle Columbia accident on Feb. 1, 2003, grounded space shuttle flights for two years. Following a test flight in 2005, operational flights of the space shuttle resumed in 2006.
The United States and Russia also came to loggerheads over Russian military activity in Crimea that began in 2014; while Roscosmos sparred with NASA after the U.S. placed economic sanctions on Russia, Soyuz flights did continue as scheduled.
There are three astronauts onboard the space station now, and they were originally scheduled to come home in December. To keep the station continuously crewed, officials decided to advance Expedition 58's liftoff by three weeks — to Dec. 3 instead of Dec. 20. That will allow the three crewmembers currently onboard on the ISS to come home on time, on Dec. 20.
That decision, however, will leave the orbiting complex with only three crewmembers, instead of the desired six. Expedition 58 crewmember and Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques told reporters in October that this will mean less science for his crew, as well as fewer chances to perform spacewalks, because maintenance activities must come first.
Luzin said he isn't necessarily worried about the forthcoming launch, because he expects that the Russians will implement more "checks and control measures" to ensure Soyuz safety. That said, the ISS partners need to continue to use Soyuz regardless of any measures taken, as there is no other spacecraft capable of bringing crews to the station right now.
That's expected to change shortly, when commercial crew vehicles are ready for spaceflight. NASA has announced the first uncrewed test of the Space Dragon commercial crew vehicle in January, with Boeing Starliner's test to follow at an undisclosed date. Crewed flights are expected to follow in 2019 or 2020. When that happens, NASA will no longer need to purchase seats from the Russians. The Russians will likely continue to ferry cosmonauts and other countries' astronauts into space using Soyuz, however, and international participation in the space station is expected to run until 2024.
NASA is currently pushing its international partners to help out with the agency's envisioned Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a moon-orbiting space station the agency hopes to fly in the 2020s. Luzin said the Russians may want to participate in this station as well. (Indeed, Rogozin did express interest in comments published Nov. 19 in the Russian news outlet Sputnik.)
"The partnership in the ISS is very well-institutionalized, and Russia has an official status as 'equal partner of the U.S.,'" Luzin said. "Moscow wants to preserve this status, because that is the third thing after [the] nuclear arsenal and [a] permanent-seat place at the U.N. Security Council that gives Russia a 'great power' status."