Although the official report on the cause of a failed Soyuz missile will not be released until Thursday, a Russian official released his central conclusion a day earlier, the national news agency TASS reported.
Sergei Krikalev, the executive director of “manned programs” for the Russian space company Roscosmos, said a sensor on board the rocket could not properly signal the separation of the first and second stages. As a result, one of the side-mounted rocket boosters did not properly detach from the vehicle and collided with the rocket.
This collision triggered an automatic shutdown of one of the Soyuz’s break-down systems, pulling the crews of NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin safely away from the rocket and sending them on a ballistic return to Earth.
The Russians quickly investigated the outage, which occurred on October 11, and completed it within three weeks. They are driven to do this because the Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only means through which NASA, Russia and their international partners can get people to and from the station. Three people remain in orbit: US astronaut Serena Auñón chancellor, German ISS commander Alexander Gerst and Russian Sergey Prokopyev. They will return to Earth around December 20.
Following their investigation, Russian officials plan to move the next manned launch from mid-December to early December to ensure a continued human presence at the station. The space station can operate autonomously for a period of time, but if something critical breaks and there are no astronauts on board to fix the problem, the station could be seriously damaged or even lost.
Krikalev said the next launch will now be moved to December 3 and will carry the same crew originally intended for this mission, MS-11: Russia’s Oleg Kononenko, American Anne McClain and Canada’s David Saint-Jacques. The problems with the Soyuz missile will be solved, he said.
NASA officials have consistently said they have complete confidence in the Russian research, as well as the Soyuz rocket and spacecraft. It’s inconceivable that the more cautious US space agency would suffer a total rocket failure in October and fly people on that same rocket less than two months later. However, given their reliance on Russia, U.S. space officials have little choice but to delay the Russians until commercial crew vehicles under development by SpaceX and Boeing are commissioned, likely within about a year from now.