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Soyuz Launch Abort Malfunction - Who At NASA Knew?

An interesting, and more than a bit disturbing, article by NBC space news analyst James Oberg, Russians report snag in space safety system.

Oberg doesn’t waste any time getting to the point of his article, “When astronauts blast off to the International Space Station in a Soyuz spacecraft on Friday, they’ll be relying on a safety system that failed in a still-unexplained manner less than a year ago, a top Russian space official said Tuesday.”

According to Oberg, during last May’s Russian Soyuz TMA-15 flight carrying NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, the launch abort system (LAS) used on the Soyuz ejected as scheduled 2 minutes in-flight but then did not operate properly as it boosted away. The concern is that had there been an accident and the LAS was needed to eject the Soyuz capsule away, as occurred in 1983, it would not have operated properly resulting possible loss of crew. According to Viktor Volchkov, of the Iskra Plant in Perm where the launch abort rocket is manufactured, it is still unknown why the May abort rocket malfunctioned.

There are concerns about quality control at the Iskra Plant. The same Iskra plant in Perm manufactures the third stage for Russia’s Bulava submarine-based ICBM. According to Yuriy Solomonov, the Bulava’s chief designer, during a test flight last December, the Bulava third-stage malfunctioned causing the rocket to cork-screw over Norway, certainly giving the normally unexcitable Norwegians something to get excited about. Solomonov has apparently complained for years about poor condition of engineering support from contractors. Mind you, we’re talking about quality control of ICBM manufactures. Anyway, according to Solomonov, this is “payback for technological imperfection and in a number of cases for overt slovenliness associated with non-compliance with technological discipline.”

But it isn’t the fact that the Russians don’t know why the Soyuz abort rocket didn’t operate properly last May that gets Oberg’s attention. Rather, it is that the failure does not seem to have been communicated through to the astronauts or those responsible at Johnson Space Center for their flight safety.

The future cannot be viewed simply as a linear extrapolation of the past — especially if there are fundamental negative trends in the condition of the industry, as described by these and other experts.

According to Johnson Space Center spokesman Kelly Humphries, the issue launch abort rocket malfunction never has came-up during the subsequent flight readiness reviews for NASA crews launching on Soyuz. But Bob Jacobs, spokesman at NASA’s Headquarters, states that NASA officials in Russia were aware of the May failure, as was NASA’s HQ staff. So, it seems that NASA personnel in Russia and at HQ decided that a launch abort malfunction on last May’s Soyuz flight was not noteworthy enough to take the trouble to notify JSC’s astronaut office or mission management team.

Left unsaid by Oberg, but not by us, is what would be the opinion of the American People and their representatives if, Heaven forbid, there had been a launch abort on last May’s Soyuz flight, that during the abort the escape rocket failed, and that the crew had perished? Were it revealed in the subsequent accident investigation that NASA’s Russia and HQ were not communicating safety of flight information to the office responsible for flight readiness for Astronaut Dyson’s mission, only someone of immense density could conclude that such an oversight would not be condemned.

The current Administration is proposing that American astronauts ride the Russian Soyuz to ISS for the next 5 years, or more. We would recommend that NASA not only try to find out why the May Soyuz abort rocket failed but also try to keep people who do the actual flight readiness reviews for astronauts flying on Soyuz in the loop about what is going on with Soyuz.

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