Less than two months after a booster separation problem with a Soyuz rocket caused a dramatic high-gravity landing, the Russian vehicle flew into space Monday at 06:31 ET (11:31 UTC). The launch from Kazakhstan, under mostly clear, blue skies, was nominal as each of the rocket’s first, second and third stages fired normally.
The launch sent NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Canadian David Saint-Jacques and Russian Oleg Kononenko into space aboard their Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft. After completing four orbits around Earth, their Soyuz spacecraft will dock at the Russian segment of the International Space Station at 12:35 a.m. ET (17:35 UTC) Monday.
This was a critical launch for both the Russian space agency Roscosmos and NASA. For Russia, Monday morning’s successful launch came after several high-profile failures in recent years, casting doubt on the safety of its venerable Soyuz missile.
For Russia, the United States and the rest of the space station partnership, Monday’s launch was also critical as another serious problem would have jeopardized the future of the orbiting laboratory. The crew of three now in space, European astronaut Alexander Gerst, NASA’s Serena Auñón chancellor and Russian Sergey Prokopyev, will return to Earth on December 19.
Back on schedule
Now they can get home on time, and the three astronauts who launched Monday will get three more astronauts in March. This will allow the station to resume normal operations with a crew of six, allowing for both domestic duties on board the station and a full range of scientific research.
After Monday morning’s launch, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine thanked the Russian space agency on Twitter. “I am grateful to Director General Dmitry Rogozin and the entire @NASA and @roscosmos teams for their dedication to making this launch a success,” Bridenstine said.
The administrator was at the Russian launch site in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, in October when one of the four booster stages attached to the Soyuz rocket failed to properly disintegrate. This booster then struck the core of the rocket, causing a significant shock and activating one of the Soyuz spacecraft’s automatic escape systems. This sent the Soyuz spacecraft on a ballistic return orbit to Earth that saved the lives of NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin.
A sensor rod bent slightly more than 6 degrees out of its normal configuration caused the booster separation problem. This happened during the assembly of the rocket and Roscosmos classified this as an operating error. To solve the process, Soyuz rockets already assembled for launch with their booster packs are disassembled and reassembled to ensure similar errors have not occurred.
NASA will remain dependent on Russia to go into space until commercial crew spacecraft under development by SpaceX and Boeing are ready to bring astronauts to the station. That could happen as early as next year.