Chair Force Engineer

Monday, April 28, 2008

Separation Anxiety

Jim Oberg has a great article on NASA Spaceflight regarding the technical problems that could have imperiled the crews of Soyuz TMA-10 and Soyuz TMA-11. It appears that consecutive Soyuz flights have suffered from off-nominal separation between the descent and propulsion modules, and off-nominal entries ensued.

An obvious course of action for NASA is to oversee the mishap review process and ensure that proper corrective actions are taken. Soyuz TMA-13 should not be launched until NASA is satisfied that the practices and systems which led to the problems on TMA-10 & 11 have been corrected.

A thornier situation is the fate of Soyuz TMA-12, currently docked to ISS. If the problems are truly common to all Soyuz spacecraft, can we expect the same dangerous reentry anomalies when TMA-12 returns to earth? Unless the Russians can conclusively demonstrate that TMA-12 is safe, NASA should plan on returning cosmonauts Volkov & Kononenko aboard the space shuttle during STS-126 this October or November. With all that is currently known, a re-entry aboard TMA-12 could jeopardize the crew. Then again, NASA has no obligation to save the bacon of cosmonauts who have been consigned to a risky re-entry by the Russian government.

Also slated to return aboard Soyuz TMA-12 is Richard "Lord British" Garriott, the computer game guru and son of astronaut Owen Garriott. As a paying Space-Adventurer, will Garriott balk at the prospect of coming home aboard TMA-12? Will the power of his dollars be able to get the Russians to reconsider their safety and quality-control practices?

The responsible thing would be to bump Garriott to TMA-14, and launch the rehabbed TMA-13 with a two-man crew. TMA-13 would replace the potentially-flawed TMA-12 at the ISS. TMA-12's crew would come home on the Space Shuttle. TMA-12 would be allowed to re-enter unmanned. This might be the only way to avoid a potential space disaster. While TMA-10 and 11 lucked out, it's foolish to rely on luck indefinitely.