Above Image Source: Roscosmos
The failure of the Russian Soyuz-FG space launch vehicle (SLV) could have been much worse. Thankfully, the two brave souls aboard that rocket came home safely. That’s a good story. In case you wondered what “ballistic reentry” means, Popular Mechanics does a decent job explaining that.
The not-so-good story: while the Russians seem to know what activated the emergency system, it will probably be a while until they do find the root cause of the issue.
A few potential problems?
All the remaining scheduled Russian launches for 2018, five, use variants of the Soyuz-FG that failed in early October. Two of those launches are dedicated to the International Space Station (ISS). All of Russia’s launches using the Soyuz will probably be delayed, if not canceled, by at least a month. There are also two Soyuz variants that Arianespace is scheduled to launch during the remainder of 2018 as well.
Nearly two years ago, in December 2016, a Russian Soyuz-U (very similar to the Soyuz-FG) transporting cargo to the ISS failed during launch (the Planetary Society wrote about this in 2017). It took the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, nearly a month and a half to identify a root cause. The Russians resumed launching Soyuz ISS missions in late February 2017, nearly three months after the Soyuz-U failure.
However, in late 2017 the Russians launched a Soyuz 2-1b nearly a week after a Soyuz 2-1b failure. The difference between the two launch attempts? The failure concerned a Fregat upper stage, something the second launch did not use. The Russians continued launches with the Fregat slightly over a month after the failure.
Both of those Soyuz missions were uncrewed.
Since the Soyuz-FG was carrying humans, the Russians might be a little more thorough figuring out the root cause. The investigation will probably take longer than the Soyuz-U investigation, despite politically-driven assurances of a quick turn-around. Who can blame them?
For those interested in a play-by-play of the Soyuz-FG launch and subsequent investigative actions, we’ve always found Anatoly Zak’s RussianSpaceWeb.com site an excellent secondary source.
Money and workforce
Root cause might be trickier than we think to figure out for the Russians. It may involve the motivation and experience of their industry’s people. Their space industry has had a rough go of it for a while. Just read this article from The Washington Post in 1998. Imagine having to beg for fuel for testing rocket engines.
The Russian Space industry in 2015 didn’t look much better according to NBC News. At the time, 90% of the Russian space industry workforce was either over the age of 60 or younger than 30. That’s a problem. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because we have gathered NASA workforce information showing similar issues.
If a Los Angeles Times article from 2018 is any indication, then the Russian workforce will suffer more brain-drain if the government doesn’t do something constructive.
But what does this mean for the nation’s capability to launch rockets?
For about two decades, Russia averaged 28 orbital SLV launch attempts annually. It hosted some of the most active launch service providers in the world, almost always ranking first in the number of launches conducted annually.
That changed after 2014.
We’ve seen declines in the number of Russian orbital SLV launches since then.
The Russians have had issues with launching SLVs. The Proton-M is the example most of us think of for having a low launch reliability rate (90%). The Soyuz 2 (very different from the Soyuz-FG) is another example of an SLV with a low launch reliability rate (91%). Until this year, the Soyuz-FG had a 100% launch reliability rate between 2008-2017.
The Russians have also been going through issues of quality control with their SLV fleets. The Russian investigation commission of the Soyuz-U launch failure pointed to a fault of a “production nature,” implying manufacturing process issues. The Fregat upper stage failure was the result of a programming error.
The latest issue, prior to the Soyuz-FG failure, was the hole found in the MS-09 Soyuz capsule, which is attached to the ISS. The Russians seem to be leaning to the theory the hole was drilled while the Soyuz capsule was on the manufacturing floor.
The Russians are still not finished looking into that problem.
Soyuz and Russian Industry Updates