MOSCOW – Just 119 seconds after the Soyuz rocket and capsule lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome on Thursday, there was a serious malfunction. It aborted the flight at the near-weightless edge of space, endangering the American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut aboard. And coincidentally, perhaps, it stalled an investigation into alleged sabotage at their destination, the International Space Station.
The Soyuz vehicles are equipped for emergencies like this. The capsule immediately started dropping to earth in what NASA officials called a “ballistic reentry,” spinning like a bullet, the heat shield hitting temperatures of about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, subjecting the men inside to about 7Gs, or seven times the pull of gravity.
Within minutes they were located and rescued. The American, Nick Hague, and the Russian, Alexey Ovchinin, survived in good shape. But the event was a huge embarrassment to Moscow on top of a lot of other bad news for President Vladmir Putin.
Over nearly two decades, Kremlin officials have learned one lesson well: the boss hates embarrassing failures in front of important foreign eyes. But the hundredth anniversary of the aerospace company Energia will be remembered as a nightmare in the history of Russian space. And also as a symbol of the Kremlin’s failing management, over-blown self-confidence, and constant efforts to hide the truth from its citizens.
To mark the jubilee, important guests including NASA's administrator Jim Bridenstine and the head of the Russian space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, arrived at Baikonur Cosmodrome. Rogozin and Bridenstine had met in person for the first time earlier this week. The anniversary program included the Soyuz rocket launch, a discussion of potential cooperation on a lunar program and a friendly party. Preparing for the meeting, Rogozin announced on Twitter that he would show the American colleague his childhood album of Soviet and American airplanes.
Meanwhile, Roscosmos flashed pictures of the crew members about to take off for the International Space Station. American Nick Hague and Russian Alexey Ovchinin shook hands under the word “Союз,” Soyuz, the Russian name of the rocket and space capsule, which means “unity.”
The anniversary, as we know, did not proceed as planned. The escape at the edge of space and the survival of the two men in good condition might have been interpreted as a backhanded compliment to Russia’s technology, or at least to its safety measures. But the Russian space industry wasn’t celebrating, and had it not been partnered with the Americans, it might have tried to keep the whole incident under wraps.
As it was, Russian citizens learned the news about the accident from NASA and not from Roscosmos the state-corporation responsible for launches. Minutes passed by after the crew safely landed in Kazakhstan, but Rogozin stayed quiet about the failure of the launch.
Some of Russia’s most-read online publications, including Gazeta.ru and Moskovsky Komsomolets, pointed out that in the past, Soviet authorities kept the nation in the dark. “It seems Roscosmos is solemnly following the Soviet tradition of keeping secrets about technological accidents and catastrophes for as long as it’s possible,” Gazeta.ru said. “The USSR neither published news about accidents of space ships, nor about the Chernobyl catastrophe.”
That was a particularly painful analogy given the disastrous nuclear contamination and political fallout from that 1986 tragedy. The authors recalled that the world learned about Chernobyl’s nuclear disaster from Swedish authorities, when a radioactive cloud appeared over Scandinavia. The article noted that, “Roscosmos stopped airing live video coverage of the launch at the critical moment, obviously trying to turn the accident into one more secret.”
On the eve of the unfortunate launch, Bridenstine described Russian-American cooperation in space as “an amazing opportunity to be a part of history.” The NASA official was standing by Rogozin’s side reminiscing about the Apollo-Soyuz mission when the USSR cosmonauts and the U.S. astronauts met in space.
Today the Soyuz is the only vehicle transporting people to and from the International Space Station, an orbiting scientific laboratory worth $100 billion. It was “inspiring” to see a Russian-American space crew working together, Bridenstine said about Hague and Ovchinin. While Bridenstine spoke, Rogozin was nodding with a cold expression on his face. A common view of Russian officials is that American space research depends on the Russian made Soyuz.
Despite furious controversies between Moscow and Washington on other fronts, space exploration as been a last frontier of friendly professional cooperation. Now it looks like the future of joint peaceful projects is in question. Earlier this year Rogozin declared that Russia would not cooperate with the United States on a moon program unless the partnership is “equal.” He was echoing the refrain from the Kremlin that Russia is treated unfairly, with way too little respect and appreciation.
For decades Russians felt proud of the Soyuz vehicle, designed to save humans on board at any stage of its 500-second flight to space. Once again, the heritage of Soviet space science proved successful – Soyuz was still a great piece of technology, and the International Space Station still needs it as a workhorse. The subject for investigation must be inside Roscosmos and Energia. But Rogozin is planning to manage the investigation.
In Moscow space authorities felt embarrassed and puzzled, discussing various versions of the accident’s cause, including sabotage. The thing was that Ovchinin’s mission was supposed to include an investigation into a mysterious hole drilled in the Russian module of the International Space Station. In case if Ovchinin found evidence proving that the hole had been drilled on the ground, the shadow of guilt would have fallen on Energia. Alas, there will be no investigation any time soon.
It is unclear how long it will take the Kremlin to investigate the accident, how soon Soyuz will bring three people remaining on board of the International Space Station back home. In Moscow observers and space experts referred to the accident, as “shocking” and “shameful.” Olga Bychkova, deputy chief editor at Echo of Moscow was not surprised. “For years both Russian and international space experts and scientists warned about some disaster coming, since Russian industry demonstrated a mess at all levels, from production to testing to launching spacecraft,“ Bychkova said. “Roscosmos and Energia are in poor condition, the only thing that is surprising is why the accident did not occur much earlier,” Bychkova added.
Today thousands of Russian engineers, scientists and astronauts involved in space industry hope that Russian-American space cooperation will not fail altogether, just like Soyuz rocket launch did on Thursday.