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Russia Suspends All Soyuz Launches After Aborted Liftoff

The launch of the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft carrying two crew members was aborted after two minutes on October 11.
The launch of the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft carrying two crew members was aborted after two minutes on October 11.

The head of Russia's Roskosmos space agency says the crew of a Soyuz mission that made an emergency landing in an aborted launch on October 11 has been scheduled to go on another space mission in the spring of 2019.

But the space agency said on October 12 that all launches of Soyuz-type spacecraft have been suspended after it determined the problem was caused by a collision of the first and second stages of the rocket during the first stage separation.

That forced a dangerous emergency landing in Kazakhstan with Russian cosmonaut Aleksei Ovchinin and U.S. astronaut Nick Hague on board.

Roskosmos head Dmitry Rogozin said in a twitter post on October 12 that Ovchinin and Hague "will definitely have their flight."

"We plan to organize the flight in the spring of next year," Rogozin tweeted.

While Russian rockets have experienced an array of glitches in recent years, the latest mishap was the first to be experienced by a manned Soyuz space mission since 1983, when a crew narrowly escaped before a launchpad explosion.

The suspension of Soyuz flights could affect a string of planned launches and returns to Earth. The next Soyuz mission, scheduled for December 20, was supposed to take a new three-person crew to the space station.

International Space Station Operations Integration Manager Kenny Todd told a press briefing in Houston late on October 11 that it's not clear how long the Soyuz operations will be grounded.

"If it's two months or six, I really can't speculate on that," he said. "The fact that this crew didn't get to orbit, we feel bad for them. But we have confidence that our Russian colleagues will figure out what's going on and we'll hopefully see Nick and Aleksei in orbit at the space station soon."

The European Space Agency is making contingency plans for three current space station crew members -- German Alexander Gerst, American Serena Aunon-Chancellor, and Russian Sergei Prokopyev.

They all were scheduled to return to Earth in December, but may have to stay aboard the station longer than that. There is enough food for the crew to last several months as the station is regularly resupplied by unmanned Japanese and American spacecraft.

But Todd said NASA is dusting off its plans for operating the space station without a crew, just in case the Russian investigation drags into next year.

He said the current space station crew can stay on board only until January -- just a month beyond their scheduled December return -- because their Soyuz capsule, which has been docked at the station since June, has limited battery life and is only good for about 200 days in orbit.

Infographic - What Is A Ballistic Descent?
Infographic - What Is A Ballistic Descent?

$100-Billion Asset

If the Russian rockets remain grounded until it's time for the crew to come home, flight controllers could operate the station without anyone on board, Todd said. It could operate like that for a long time, barring a major equipment failure, he said.

But it will need to be staffed again before private space companies SpaceX or Boeing launch their planned manned missions next year, Todd said.

Given that the space station is a $100 billion asset, he said, it needs to have someone on board for the arrival of the first commercial manned missions, for safety reasons.

NASA mothballed its Space Shuttle program in 2011, and since then has been paying Russia about $80 million for each trip ferrying a U.S. astronaut to the station.

The contract with Russia ends in late 2019, and the U.S. space agency has deals with the two American companies to step in at that point.

Sending astronauts to the ISS will be a first for a privately owned company.

Elon Musk's SpaceX will be using its Falcon 9 rockets. Since 2012, SpaceX has launched satellites for NASA, and has carried out 16 resupply missions to the space station.

An unmanned Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon capsule is scheduled for launch in January 2019, with a similar manned launch set for June 2019.

For Boeing, launches are set for March and August 2019.

Despite NASA's publicly expressed confidence about the effects of a suspension in Russian Soyuz launches, some space officials expressed concern privately that it could affect important scientific research that is being conducted on board the station, which serves as an orbiting laboratory in space.

Moreover, both SpaceX's and Boeing's rocket programs have run into delays, as is often the case in the aerospace industry.

Any further delay of planned launches by SpaceX or Boeing could hold up the approval of their manned launch programs. This could mean that the first astronaut they would send into orbit would not depart until 2020 instead of 2019.

With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, TASS, and Interfax