As rookie NASA astronaut Nick Hague climbed into a Soyuz rocket for the first time alongside veteran Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin on Oct. 10, what should have been a routine flight to the International Space Station could already be described as awkward. The empty middle seat between them served as a reminder that all was not well.
Hague and Ovchinin were launching into an uncertain situation aboard the space station. A little more than a month before their launch, on Aug. 29, the station had suddenly begun to vent oxygen into the cold vacuum of space. The source of the leak was quickly traced to a small hole in a Russian-made Soyuz capsule already docked to the station. In Houston and Moscow, experts were left scratching their heads
For more than 20 years, NASA’s relationship with Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, has been the model of post-Cold War reconciliation between Washington and Moscow. Those ties only grew deeper in 2011, when the U.S. retired its fleet of space shuttles and Russia’s Soyuz rocket, a design that dates to the 1960s, became the sole means of reaching the $100-billion space outpost.
This marriage between the two space programs has weathered the atmosphere of distrust that now permeates U.S.-Russia relations. Across the field of bilateral ties between Moscow and Washington, only space exploration has succeeded in staying above the fray. But when evidence arose that the hole in Soyuz was deliberately drilled, that resilience was put to a test.
Dmitry Rogozin, a bombastic nationalist politician recently appointed by President Vladimir Putin to lead the Russian space agency, was quick to insert himself into the situation when he suggested the Soyuz spacecraft had been sabotaged. “There were several attempts at drilling,” Rogozin said on Sept. 3. “Was this a production defect or some premeditated action?”
The Russian media ran with the theory, and before long speculation was rampant that American astronauts aboard the space station poked the hole in Soyuz. Rogozin, who is famously anti-Western and under U.S. sanctions for his role in Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, was intent on tracking down the culprit, calling it “a matter of honor” for Russia’s space industry.
When Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, flew to Moscow for the first time on Oct. 9 to meet Rogozin before traveling with him to Baikonur, Kazakhstan, for the following day’s Soyuz launch, he did his best to calm things down. “We’ve got to very dispassionately allow the investigation to go forward without speculation, without rumor, without innuendo, without conspiracy,” he said.
With tensions higher than at any previous point in the NASA-Roscosmos partnership, Rogozin and Bridenstine watched as their astronauts worked through the tradition-rich motions of a Soyuz launch. It was all very routine. And at 11:40 Moscow time, the claw-like launch gantry fell away from the Soyuz rocket. Engines blazing, the rocket began its climb out over the horizon.
But, in the course of 118 seconds, what began as an awkward launch turned into a terrifying nightmare for the Russian and American space agencies.
On NASA TV, a commentator following a well-rehearsed script was undercut by a slightly muted background track looped into Russia’s mission control center outside Moscow: “Booster failure! Booster failure!” The astronauts reported shaking, rolling and then weightlessness — a clear indication something had gone very wrong at such an early stage in the flight.
Then, there was silence. For several harrowing minutes, all contact with the crew was lost.
According to an official Roscosmos accident report, released Thursday, a deformed sensor led to poor separation of one of the four side boosters from the main rocket. The booster struck the central body of the rocket, damaging the bottom section and knocking the vehicle off course. The computer, sensing a problem, cut the engine and initiated the launch abort system.
The top section of the rocket, housing Hague and Ovchinin’s Soyuz capsule, was then catapulted away from the damaged rocket and sent on a 15-minute ballistic hurdle up through the atmosphere and back down to Earth. They were alive, but for a moment only they knew it. It was a rough maneuver, and they experienced a force of 6 to 7 Gs on reentry. But they survived.
Rescue teams later recovered the crew and they were flown back to Baikonur. Even in failure, the fact of their survival was a testament to 60-year-old engineering and, after such a close call, no one was talking about the hole anymore.
Though the crew survived, the two agencies were not out of the woods yet. Soyuz is the only way to reach the space station, and until the cause of the failure could be identified, no other Soyuz rockets would fly. And the current station crew could stay no later than December. If Soyuz didn’t get cleared for launch before them, the space station would have to be abandoned — ending a 20-year streak of human presence in orbit and jeopardizing the largest international project ever undertaken during peacetime.
It was a daunting prospect for the two space agencies, but one that they avoided on Thursday, when Roscosmos announced Soyuz is back in action.
On Dec. 3, a relief crew will be launched to the station. The issue that nearly derailed the space partnership, the hole in the Soyuz currently docked to the space station, has disappeared from the public radar. And in an interview with Tass two weeks ago, NASA Administrator Bridenstine said they had secured a temporary sanctions exception for Rogozin to visit the U.S.
“There is a lot I would like to discuss with Rogozin,” Bridenstine was quoted as saying in a Russian-language version of the interview published on Oct 19. “If we want to establish a strong working relationship, then we need to begin working closely with each other — which in turn will be good for both countries.”
No official confirmation that NASA helped remove Rogozin, temporarily, from the sanctions list has yet been given. His visit would be the third time a sanctioned Russian official has visited the U.S. on official business — the other two officials were the heads of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service and Federal Security Service, successor agency to the KGB.
Bridenstine’s spokeswoman, Megan Powers, when asked for clarification did not deny the Tass report but said only that “NASA has invited Mr. Rogozin to the U.S. early next year. The specifics have not yet been determined.”
Powers deferred all visa- and sanctions-related questions to the U.S. State and Treasury departments.
Regardless of the circumstances of Rogozin’s visit, it is a strong and unusual gesture considering Bridenstine had spoken with his counterpart by phone only one time — concerning the hole — before meeting him in Baikonur for the failed Soyuz launch. And it remains an open question whether the issue of the hole has been put to rest.
“I think after the next manned launch this will all go back to where it was before the last launch,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russian space industry analyst. “Inviting Rogozin to D.C. means that some tough talk is required out of sight of cameras and the smiles. There are a number of issues they still need to work out, and the future of the partnership beyond [the space station] is a big question.”
Bodner is a special correspondent to The Times.