The three astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station were supposed to welcome two new roommates today, but an anomaly a few minutes after launch sent those crewmembers speeding back to Earth in an emergency landing.
Both crewmembers (NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovichin) are safe, but the launch failure means that much more than just today's space station schedule will need to be reshuffled. NASA, the Russian space agency Roscosmos, and the International Space Station control team still have a whole lot of decisions to make about what to do next — not to mention an investigation to conduct into what went wrong.
The Soyuz rocket and spacecraft are workhorse vehicles for Roscosmos. An uncrewed version of the Soyuz is used to launch automated Progress cargo ships to the space station. [In Photos: The Harrowing Soyuz Launch Abort in Pictures]
"We have plenty of supplies on board the station to support the crew and they're going to continue to do work," NASA spokesperson Kelly Humphries told Space.com. Given that the team no longer needs to help new astronauts settle in to life on the space station, the team is planning to bulk up their science work in the near future. Robotic cargo launches using U.S.-built resupply ships are also scheduled to deliver more supplies to the station in the next two months.
But the consequences of the failed launch will ripple through the space station's activities. Hague, one of the two crewmembers on today's launch, was scheduled to take part in two upcoming spacewalks on Oct. 19 and 25 to replace batteries attached to the outside of the space station.
Those spacewalks had already been delayed after the Japanese cargo vehicle carrying the new batteries ran into a series of launch delays in September. "Clearly they're going to have to consider what options they have in regard to that, but we don't have any decisions on that yet," Humphries said of the spacewalks.
Three astronauts are currently on board the space station: NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev and European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst. Hague and his crewmate Ovchinin, were scheduled to round out the crew from today until December, when the three astronauts currently aboard will return to Earth.
Humphries said it's too early to tell whether the next scheduled crew launch of three astronauts in December will be affected by today's launch failure.
Each crew returns to Earth in the capsule they rode up to the space station, so Auñón-Chancellor, Prokopyev and Gerst won't be stranded by today's launch failure. However, exactly when that crew will return to Earth is uncertain, as it may depend on when their relief arrives at the space station.
NASA has been dependent on Russia's crewed Soyuz spacecraft and rockets to fly astronuats to and from the space station since the agency retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011. NASA plans to resume U.S. launches to the space station on private spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing, beginning in 2019.
SpaceX plans to launch an uncrewed test flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft by January, but could be ready to launch in December depending on NASA's needs, the company has said. A crewed launch on Crew Dragon could occur in June of 2019.
Boeing, meanwhile, plans to launch an uncrewed test flight of its Starliner space capsule in March, with a crewed flight to the station in August of 2019. NASA unveiled the astronauts to fly on those SpaceX and Boeing missions on Aug. 3.