From The Editors Science

Three Astronauts Aboard Soyuz MS-11 Spacecraft Arrive Safely at the International Space Station

Launched aboard a Russian Soyuz FG rocket from the Baikonur

Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday, the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft and its crew of three astronauts spent six hours in orbit before arriving at the International Space Station at 12:33 PM ET.

Russian space agency Roscosmos confirmed the spacecraft’s successful docking with the Research Module Poisk at the ISS via Twitter.

Astronauts Anne McClain (NASA), David Saint-Jacques (Canadian Space Agency) and Oleg Kononenko (Roscosmos) will spend some six and a half months aboard the ISS, conducting hundreds of science experiments before embarking on their return journey to Earth.

The Monday launch marked the first crewed flight of a Soyuz rocket since a similar launch vehicle, carrying  NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin, broke apart mid-flight on Oct 11, minutes after lift-off.

A few seconds after the generally reliable Soyuz’s four liquid-fuelled boosters separated from the central core stage of the rocket, something went awfully wrong and the rocket spun out of control, forcing the two crewmates to abandon the mission some 31 miles above Earth.

Both Hague and Ovchinin returned safely to terra firma, their escape capsule landing a few hundred miles from the launch site.

“NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin are in good condition following today’s aborted launch,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine had tweeted from Kazakhstan, confirming their safe return.

“I’m grateful that everyone is safe. A thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted. Full statement below:” said the tweet.

The accompanying NASA statement said “an anomaly with the booster” caused the launch ascent to be aborted, “resulting in a ballistic landing of the spacecraft.”

“Search and rescue teams were deployed to the landing site. Hague and Ovchinin are out of the capsule and are reported to be in good condition,” the statement continued.

“Safety of the crew is the utmost priority for NASA,” said NASA, adding that a “thorough investigation into the cause of the incident” would be initiated.

Alexey Ovchinin and Nick Hague shortly after their emergency landing after the aborted Soyuz mission on Oct 11. Credit: Roscosmos
Alexey Ovchinin and Nick Hague shortly after their emergency landing after the aborted Soyuz mission on Oct 11. Credit: Roscosmos

A Roscosmos investigation into the mishap revealed that a damaged sensor on one of the four strap-on boosters around the central core-stage caused the booster to graze the fuel tank during separation, breaking the rocket apart.

“The nozzle lid of the oxidizer tank in the block D did not open as a sensor of the stages’ separation was deformed (a 6-degree bend) during the assembly of the ‘package’ at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which was the cause of the off-nominal separation,” Head of the Emergency Commission, Deputy Director of the Central Research Institute of Machine-Building (TsNIImash) Oleg Skorobogatov was quoted by TASS as saying.

The Russian space agency even released footage of the faulty separation, which can be clearly seen at the end of the video as the booster in question hits the fuel tank instead of separating in harmony with the other three.

However, Monday’s successful launch and the subsequent ISS docking at the space station vindicates Roscosmos’ pre-launch claims that the problem had since been fixed and that Soyuz rockets were ready for future missions.

Speaking at a press conference a day before the launch, Kononenko said that the crew “absolutely” trusted the preparations.

“Risk is part of our profession,” he said.

“We are psychologically and technically prepared for blast-off and any situation which, God forbid, may occur on board,” Kononenko added.

Echoing the 54-year-old cosmonaut’s sentiments, former military pilot McClain, 39, said: “We feel very ready for it.”

Astronaut Anne McClain (NASA), astronaut David Saint-Jacques (Canadian Space Agency) and cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko (Roscosmos) at the pre-launch press conference.
Astronaut Anne McClain (NASA), astronaut David Saint-Jacques (Canadian Space Agency) and cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko (Roscosmos) at the pre-launch press conference.

A little over two hours after docking, the hatch separating the spacecraft and the ISS opened to let the three newcomers in, where they were welcomed by the current ISS occupants.

NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, German astronaut Alexander Gerst, and Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev have been at the orbiting laboratory since early June when they arrived in a Soyez capsule.

While this is the first trip to the ISS for astronauts McClain and Saint-Jacques, it is the fourth for veteran cosmonaut Kononenko.

Originally scheduled for Dec 20th, the Soyuz launch had to be preponed to avoid a crew shortage aboard the ISS for longer than absolutely necessary, after Hague and Ovchinin failed to make it to the space station because of the aborted mission.

With the three current ISS occupants slated to leave the ISS in mid-December, sticking to the original launch date would have meant an unmanned ISS for the first time since the first crew arrived at the station more than eighteen years ago.

However, with the early arrival of the three members, that eventuality has been avoided and the record stays intact.

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