August 5, 2021

The Soyuz and the return ticket

The Soyuz and the return ticket


According to the latest reports, during the takeoff of the Soyuz spacecraft there was a problem with one of the impellers – of the four that the ship has. That was the reason why he had to land again when not three minutes had passed since he had risen. At that time, the emergency protocol was activated, an autonomous system that does not require human intervention – neither on the ship nor on the ground – and that produces the separation of the escape pod to ensure that the crew can return safely. . The autonomous protocol is essential because in case of emergency, a rapid response is vital. Similarly, astronauts are subject to significant G forces during takeoff and those responsible for the base may take a few seconds to react. In these cases, the premise is very simple: escape. Thanks to this, the two crew members are safe and sound.

Minutes after the failed takeoff, Ovchinin and Hague returned to ground in what is known as "ballistic mode", an entry angle sharper than normal and during which they would have experienced high G forces. Up to 6.7 times above the normal values. The landing occurred about 20 kilometers east of the city of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, which is 400 km from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. It is not the first time that this small city sees the landing of a spacecraft: back in 1979, the Soyuz 33 was returning, also with two crew members, from a mission to the Salyut 6 space station.

The Soyuz was, until now, the only ship that carried crew to the International Space Station (ISS). Until it is discovered exactly what happened and what measures should be taken, it can take a year or three months. But the current residents of the ISS have their return ticket. Thus, for the first time the emblem of space missions may remain empty. It had never happened since its inaugural occupants, Yuri Gidzenko, Sergei Krikalev and William Shepherd, arrived in November 2000.

The International Space Station is one of the most sophisticated laboratories developed to date. There, experiments are carried out in fields as diverse as medicine, animal biology, astronomy, materials science, meteorology or superconductivity, among others. In fact, this last mission was loaded with the first experiment to print biological material in microgravity conditions. It is, basically, a machine to print skin in space. All this knowledge would stop, and to that is added that the price of keeping the station in orbit, but completely unoccupied – without "producing science" – is enormous.

Is the Soyuz safe?

This Russian ship gathers, in its different versions, a history of more than 140 space missions and this is the first important problem since another mission was aborted in 1983. And before that, there was only another similar case, in 1975. If we speak exclusively from the rocket, it already has more than 1,700 missions and according to the European Space Agency, it is the most reliable vehicle of the space age. The faith is such that NASA itself ensures that it will continue to use the Soyuz even if the manned SpaceX or Boeing flights begin next year.

Realistically, the times to find alternatives are very short. According to forecasts, both Boeing and SpaceX had to have their ships ready by mid-2019. These were to be the first manned launches to the ISS by private companies. SpaceX already has experience in sending supplies, more than a dozen missions in total. Therefore, it is the one with the best prospects to try to advance the deadlines. To this is added that behind this company is Elon Musk, recognized for his impulsiveness. Fortunately, NASA is the one that controls that all security measures are met and will not accept any resolution of Musk that is not in accordance with the current protocols. And Musk will surely propose them.

Now the important thing is to choose if private companies or space agencies are better. It is inevitable that in a few decades it will be common for private companies such as Boeing, Virgin and SpaceX to make numerous flights into space. This can cause the monopoly of this type of expeditions to be left to the private sector. That is why it is so important that NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency and the European Space Agency, among others, remain linked to space exploration. The current administrator of NASA, Jim Bridenstine, yesterday gave a key: "We want our alliance (Russia and the United States) to remain strong when we have our own commercial capabilities to fly to the ISS." While companies will seek benefits from the space race, leaving science and findings in private hands, governments will want to make sure that these advances are available to a larger audience, democratizing science.

At the same time, the need of countries to work in crisis and unexpected problems, such as Soyuz, forces them to understand each other and to produce political, economic and social agreements.

Finally, space exploration requires facing unknown challenges, something that requires imagining all possible scenarios and thus creating solutions that will then be used on Earth. NASA has a long history of advances developed in the last 50 years. From the detection of chemicals to enriched food, through road safety and food safety, thermometers … In total, more than 5,000 technological applications that in one way or another could have taken decades to arrive if it were not for the help of the space agencies.

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