Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Yet Another Reason to Mind the Gap

Details are slowly starting to emerge about the harrowing ballistic re-entry of Soyuz TMA-11 this past weekend. There is speculation that the propulsion module failed to cleanly separate, resulting in a nose-first reentry. The result must have resulted in a very high pucker-factor for the cosmonaut, astronaut and space-adventurer involved (I hate the terms "space tourist" and "spaceflight participant.")

If the speculation is true, Soyuz TMA-11 suffered a failure similar to that on Soyuz 5. The risk to the crew would be exceptionally high, and their only saving grace is the fact that the descent module is made of alloys that are more heat-resistant than the materials which attach the propulsion module to the backside of the capsule. Additionally, the Soyuz capsule is natually stable and assumes the proper attitude for re-entry once the propulsion module is shed. One has to ask whether the Orion spacecraft will be able to survive a similar problem, at least on earth orbital missions (lunar reentries will be so fast that a crew would probably perish under similar circumstances.)

If the capsule truly did begin its re-entry in a hatch-forward attitude, the crew would immediately realize it and would be able to confirm the report. But it would seem that the crew is being muzzled for the time-being. It would appear that "glasnost" is a lesson that Russia's space agency is having a hard time learning.

Regardless of whether the re-entry was hatch-first, the problems on Soyuz TMA-11 serve as a reminder that Soyuz is far from perfect. Despite 41 years of flight history, there will always be some faults. We can always do better. And if we can get a better spacecraft into service, we should implement it as soon as feasible.

For that reason, does it make any sense that we will be waiting until at least 2015 before Orion is ready as America's next spacecraft? Five years of exclusive Soyuz access to space is a sobering thought indeed. We'd better hope that SpaceX comes to the rescue before we resort to that.