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NASA’s Nick Hague (left) and Roscosmos’s Alexey Ovchinin discuss their Soyuz MS-10 abort at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai October 27. (credit: J. Foust)

Risk, teamwork, and opportunity: the tale of a Soyuz abort


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The annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC) is a sprawling event, often with dozens of parallel tracks of technical paper presentations or panel discussions. With so much going on over the course of a week and a sometimes confusion alphanumeric notation system for tracks—is this session A2.7 or A7.2?—it’s easy to miss out on some interesting presentations.

One of those hidden gems at last month’s IAC in Dubai was on October 27, right in the middle of the conference. It was a session not widely publicized outside of a daily email to conference attendees highlighting the day’s events, and perhaps why it was attended by only several dozen people out of an estimated 5,000 registrants.

“I often hear the question, ‘Were you scared?’ We were not scared,” Ovchinin said. “It will be scary when you don’t understand what’s going on, when you don’t know what you need to do. In our situation, we understood what was going on and what we needed to do.”

In the brief session, NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin discussed what happened to them three years earlier, when they launched on the Soyuz MS-10 mission, only to have to abort two minutes after liftoff when their Soyuz rocket failed. It was the first in-flight abort of a Soyuz in decades, one that successfully brought the two back to Earth but not after some uncertainty if they made it out alive.

Hague outlined what happened in the incident. One of the strap-on boosters of the Soyuz failed to cleanly separate, impaling the core stage. “It essentially sends the rocket out of control as it disintegrates,” he said.

As soon as the rocket tipped beyond an allowable range, “the launch escape system kicked in,” he said. That launch escape system is a set of four solid rocket motors integrated into the fairing that protects the Soyuz during ascent. Two fired on one side and then two on the other side, “effectively giving us a sidestep maneuver so that the rocket can continue to go out of control behind us but we’re pushed away to the side, for safety.”

“The whole process of the separation, impalement, disintegration, us being pulled to safety all happened within a quarter-second,” he said. That particular aspect of the abort system, he added, had never been tested before. “I think it highlights that spaceflight, every flight, is a test flight.”

After the abort, the Soyuz flew upwards on a ballistic trajectory, reaching a peak altitude of 92 kilometers. That was high enough, many noted at the time, to reach space by the US government definition of 50 miles, or about 80 kilometers, but not enough to reach the 100-kilometer Kármán Line. “That led to all kinds of questions—‘Did you make it? Did you not make it?’—for the weeks that came after,” he recalled. “All completely irrelevant.”

The remainder of the flight was not unlike the descent of a Soyuz from orbit, although pulling higher g-forces. “It got up to about 6.7g’s, which is well within the threshold we trained to,” he said. After landing, they waited about ten minutes until pararescue teams, arriving by parachute, arrived and helped pull them out; uninjured, Hague recalled, other than a couple bruises on his knee. “I think Alexey was ready to go again that day.”

Ovchinin offered only a few comments about the flight at the session. “I often hear the question, ‘Were you scared?’ We were not scared,” he said. “It will be scary when you don’t understand what’s going on, when you don’t know what you need to do. In our situation, we understood what was going on and what we needed to do.”

He credited that to the long training for the flight. “It was very good preparation, and that’s why we are here.”

“We train for off-nominal situations so much that it becomes difficult to understand what the nominal looks like,” Hague said.

Asked if they offered any recommendations about improving the abort system, Hague said there were a few minor ones, like making sure items inside the cabin were secured during “dynamic events” like an abort.

“Spaceflight is a risky business. We just happened to realize that risk,” Hague said. “This is an example where we have to, as a collective in the human spaceflight business, realize sometimes those risks that we talk about potentially happening aren’t manageable, and are realized.”

Another, he said, was ensuring the satellite phone included in the capsule, used to make calls in a contingency like this, had a list of numbers that included Mission Control in Houston. “A quicker response time from me landing to being able to make a call to the flight director would have saved 20 minutes of uncertainty in my wife knowing whether or not I was still here or not.”

Ovchinin said he recommended “a few things, from our point of view, that need to change in Soyuz,” but didn’t elaborate on them. “They’re not big changes.”

“But by and large, the system operated exactly like it was supposed to,” Hague said. “The abort system worked great, as designed.”

Hague said the incident brought three things to mind. One was the teamwork required to ensure that the abort could be safely performed, and that the crew was trained to carry it out.

A second was risk. “Spaceflight is a risky business. We just happened to realize that risk,” he said. “This is an example where we have to, as a collective in the human spaceflight business, realize sometimes those risks that we talk about potentially happening aren’t manageable, and are realized. Are we prepared for what that risk, and the outcome of that risk, is going to entail?”

“That why it takes two years to get ready for a spaceflight,” he added, pointing to a group of astronauts sitting in the front of the room. “These are consummate professionals sitting here in the front row in blue suits. They could fly a nominal spaceflight with about week’s worth of training. It’s the remainder of those two years where we figure out how to work together when everything is failing.”

After the abort, he said he met with Boeing and SpaceX, the two companies developing commercial crew vehicles, as well as those working on NASA’s Artemis program, to drive this point home. “The effort you’re putting into developing your escape systems and making sure that those work and they’re there to protect the crew,” he recalled telling them, “every dollar and every minute you spend on that is worth it and absolutely necessary.”

The third item that came to mind was opportunity, Hague said. “That’s why we do what we do. It’s for the opportunity to expand human understanding,” he said. “We accept those risks, we do this risky mission, because we believe in what we’re doing, and it’s worth it.”

“We accept those risks, we prepare for those risks, we never want to realize those risks but, when we do, we know why we did it,” he said.


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