The Real Soyuz Problem – Looking Past the Smoke and Flames

While public attention remains focused on the unraveling drama of the emergency spacecraft landing on April 19, and how close to death the crew actually came, space engineers in Russia and the United States are already looking ahead.

Their concern now must be what to do regarding space hardware and procedures already built, or being completed, that may have hitherto unrecognized hazards – and what can be done to improve the odds for future space crews who gamble with their lives on every mission.

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By James Oberg – special editorial to

That task has just been made significantly more difficult by Moscow space officials who have essentially prejudged the results of the incident investigation that is just now starting. They have declared, at the highest level in the Russian Space Agency and not for the first time, that allegations against the reliability of their space hardware are part of a deliberate foreign campaign to scare away cash-paying customers of their space services.

Meanwhile, the landing of Soyuz TMA-11 with Russian pilot Yuri Malenchenko, NASA space station commander Dr. Peggy Whitson, and South Korean spaceflight participant Yi So-Yeon, is looking more and more scary.

It started that way, with an unexpected communications blackout and the failure of the spacecraft to appear in the skies over the planned landing zone. Anxiety was only relieved half an hour later when the pilot crawled out of the off-course-landed vehicle and called home on his satellite phone that had been packed for just such an emergency.

Then, on Monday, April 21, rumors began circling the planet about a much more serious situation at the beginning of the descent. Normally, following the firing of the braking engine to knock the spacecraft out of orbit and deflect its path into the atmosphere, the engine section is discarded, revealing the heavily-shielded blunt back end of the crew cabin. It faces into the Mach 25 airstream of superheated ions and protects the crew. But not this time, so the stories went.

Separation bolts failed to fire and the two sections stayed attached (a forward section containing spartan living quarters and docking hardware did separate properly). The remaining combined modules would hit the air sideways or even nose forward, where heat shielding was much thinner. The delicate parachutes are located here, and any damage to them or their lines could have doomed the crew.

Also, NASA engineers in Houston whispered of a barely-avoided ‘thermal breach’ that would have killed the crew, but for the wind-induced stresses that tore the two units apart and allowed the crew cabin to right itself.

Moscow rumor mill:

A Russian source first broke these stories onto the news wires. ‘It was very lucky that all members of the crew survived,’ an unnamed space engineer told Interfax. “Everything could have ended much worse. It was a very narrow escape.’

He provided additional technical details that enhanced his credibility. ‘As a result of excessive thermal overloads, the hatch was significantly burnt. Besides, the transmitter antenna melted and the contact was lost. The exterior part of the pressure equalization valve was burnt,’ he continued.

The significance of the failure alarmed him, he explained: ‘Judging by the fact that the contingency situation occurred again, it is clear that the technological discipline in preparing space equipment for flights is declining,’ he concluded. ‘There is no guarantee that the crew of the next Soyuz capsule landing six months from now will not face the same problems.’

Official Russian reaction followed, in the form of bland denials and nasty insinuations of sinister motives. ‘The reports about the threat to the life of astronauts do not stand up to scrutiny from the technical point of view and generally harm the Russian space industry,’ stated the head of the space agency’s press service, Aleksandr Vorobyov. ‘The information which was published with a reference to an unnamed and highly incompetent source was nothing but a dirty trick.

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‘The report was wrong from a technical point of view,’ he added, but provided no supportive evidence of this interpretation.

Why should somebody lie? Vorobyov had a classical Russian explanation – enemies were plotting against Russia. ‘Publications of this kind are designed to disrupt a Russian-U.S. agreement on NASA’s purchases of Progress and Soyuz spacecraft after shuttles stop flying to the ISS,’ he told Reuters.

Head of the Russian Space Agency Anatoliy Perminov agreed: ‘People who are interested in destabilization of our relations with the American partners are fuelling the situation,’ he told reporters. ‘If we rush into panic and write what did not take place, this is wrong, and this will not come to anything good.’

Ground Smokescreens:

In support of this view, Moscow media quoted another Russian space source who was at the landing site, who called the alarmist media reports ‘nonsense’. Far from being scorched during descent, he claimed, the capsule ‘looked more charred than usual because its engines were fired to soften the landing, igniting the dry grass in Kazakhstan’s steppe.’

However, a close examination of photographs from the landing area show no burnt grass near the Soyuz at all – the burned area begins about ten meters downwind. So this attempted refutation of the alarmist ‘leak’ seems itself bogus.

If the fire was ignited by the landing rockets, they threw burning embers into the air which blew downwind and ignited the grass there. If the burning areas had been ignited by locals, the Soyuz had the extraordinary bad luck to land in the upwind vertex of the burning area, precisely enough so that its parachute could collapse within reach of the flames while the spacecraft itself was clear of them. Well, maybe.


Reconstructing the actual sequence of landing events will take time, NASA official Bill Gerstenmaier told reporters on April 22. Very little telemetry is transmitted real time, and the Soyuz’s data recorder – and exterior damage – need to be carefully studied over the next several weeks.

He conceded that there apparently WAS a module separation problem, evident to the crew from the side-to-side shaking of their cabin as the heavier rocket section flopped around behind it.

He did not think there was any serious orientation misalignment, because the crew reported they had seen nothing unusual on their instruments (this flight phase occurred in Earth’s shadow so no visual cues were available out the windows).

But if that were the case, the mystery remains as to why the rocket section eventually did detach itself, because it is constructed with attachment structures robust enough for coasting flight but fragile enough to teat apart once the aerodynamic stresses of entry begin.

In contrast with this, in the days that followed, Moscow reports continued to elaborate on the separation-failure scenario. Claims supposedly originating from space workers specified that the still-linked modules turned about 90 degrees and stayed together about two minutes before breaking loose. When – if ever – this scenario is officially confirmed can’t be predicted.

Gerstenmaier cleared up a question of smoke seen inside the cabin during descent. It was not, he explained, from the Soyuz walls being scorched by sideways air friction. Instead, it was after parachutes had deployed, and seems associated with either external air sucked in through pressure equalization valves, or the overheating of a video display unit.

Nor were any actual G-force measurements noted by the crew, he explained in reply to a question. All the figures discussed in the past few days are estimates only – the actual data recordings will take some time to decode. But a day later, crewmember Peggy Whitson, in a taped interview on the day of landing, mentioned she HAD been watching the G-meter and saw a reading of 8.2 – high, but not overly so for the emergency descent path.

Gerstenmaier spoke soberly and calmly, asking the media not to exaggerate the issue. He expressed hope that the Russians would let NASA take part in the investigation – but other NASA sources had already warned me that so far the U.S. side was being locked out of the work.

Dodging the real problem:

The accusations from space chief Perminov and his staff are troubling, and not merely from their naked chauvinism. Worse, their consequences might include pre-judged investigative ‘results’ that correspond to the answers that the top officials wanted from the get-go. Above all, they clearly want the answers not to interfere with cash deals with foreign customers (mainly NASA) worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

This wasn’t the first time that patriotic prejudgments had threatened the integrity of accident investigations in Moscow.

Last June, when all three Russian control computers failed on the ISS, placing the entire project in doubt, Russian officials immediately told the public that the Americans were at fault since they were working on expanding the solar power complex at the time of the problem. That may have been a fair ‘first guess’, subject to subsequent analysis. But the Russians did more than merely make a “first assumption” that the US was to blame.

Their top officials announced early on that they had concluded this was true. Russian Space Agency head Anatoliy Perminov (Interfax, June 18) declared: “In our opinion, the computer failure resulted from a (powerful and sudden) static surge related to the installation of new (American) solar panels.” And ITAR-TASS, on June 18, reported: “An Energia official told Itar-Tass that a fivefold over-voltage resultant from the unfolding of extra U.S. solar batteries caused the computer failure.”

A few days earlier, Agence France-Presse in Moscow had attributed almost exactly those same words to Irina Gomenyuk, spokesperson for the spaceship vendor, Energiya Space and Rocket Corporation, in Korolev, northern Moscow.

All of these knee-jerk ”blame the Americans’ announcements were not only inaccurate in hindsight, they could have harmed the progress of the authentic investigation – which ultimately laid the blame on a poor Russian cable design (a conclusion never disclosed in the Russian news media)..

Similarly, in recent months Russian space officials have jumped to the conclusion that uncomfortable rumors can’t be simply guesses (even correct guesses), they must spring from hostile conspiracies.

For example, last December 27, rumors about the resignation (or firing) of Perminov briefly circulated. He had the explanation: “These rumors spread by mass media were apparently provoked by the interests of certain commercial organizations eager to lay their hands on the (space) industry’s assets,” he told Interfax. “We are under tough pressure. This is a struggle for money and power. Billions of dollars, not rubles, stream past these organizations.”

Similarly, when early last February there were rumors that an ISS avoidance maneuver might be necessary to avoid a piece of Chinese space debris from their anti-satellite shot the previous year, darker motivations were described.

The AVN-Novestey news agency quoted one of its “informed sources” as saying: “US official figures have already had to admit their satellite’s (USA-193) departure from orbit is proceeding in an uncontrolled mode. In other words, it is possible that the multi-ton spacecraft may fall somewhere in a densely populated area. In order to divert attention from this quite real danger, a false one is being invented for the media.”

In a society that tolerates such snap judgments and conspiracy thinking at the highest level, it’s difficult to expect that real causes to real space problems will always be found and properly acted upon. This is especially true if the investigation occurs behind Soviet-style “closed doors”.

Confronting the Real Problem:

The far more compelling dilemma here is the technological one. On Soyuz TMA-10’s landing last October, there also had been a module separation fault and a ballistic descent. These were thought to be independent events, and an investigation concluded that a faulty cable led to the latter problem. That was the culprit found and fixed upon – and maybe they didn’t look any farther. It might indeed have been ‘faulty’ – but in hindsight, was it ‘at fault’ after all?

Now on Soyuz TMA-11 we once again have a separation fault and a ballistic entry mode. The two failures (apparently the same two on each flight) are also supposedly non-related. But that mainly seems to be so because the Russian engineers can’t figure out a way to link them causally, one to the other or both to a single independent cause.

Yet the odds of two unrelated, coincidental failures occurring identically twice in a row are vanishingly small, so potential cause-and-effect needs to examined much more vigorously. After this is done, commonality with hardware currently installed on TMA-12 needs to be stringently examined to predict the likelihood of a third-in-a-row repeat of what is beginning to look like a pattern.

Making the problem worse:

Detecting such patterns is made doubly difficult by the old Russian habit of withholding ‘bad news’ both from the public in general, and from potential customers in particular. Seeing this Soviet-era trait resurrected so resolutely for this latest event is dismaying, to say the least.

This landing mishap seems so scary in hindsight because it seems so familiar – a hauntingly parallel problem way back in 1969 nearly led to the loss of Soyuz-5 and its solo pilot, Boris Volynov (


In October, 2005, I talked with him for an hour at the ‘Star City’ cosmonaut center outside Moscow, and his near-death experience is still etched indelibly in his memory – but it was a ‘state secret’ that endured for the duration of the Soviet state, and only leaked out in garbled form in the early 1990’s.

Also in the 1990’s, in preparation for the shuttle-Mir missions and for Russia’s eventual role on the ISS, Moscow space officials provided NASA with safety data that was often incomplete.

For example, they asserted there never had been any fires aboard Soviet spacecraft, while there had actually had been at least half a dozen serious incidents – and then one more caught NASA by surprise, in February 1997, when it nearly killed an American astronaut aboard Mir.

That same year, on a contract independent of my ‘day job’ designing the ISS orbital trajectory, I studied the open literature for insights into Soyuz landing anomalies that might make its role in medical evacuation more problematical. The final report ( was critical of inadequate Russian candor:

“Official Russian reports on Soyuz flight events are inadequate to assess effectiveness of medevac missions. As an example, compare the (official Russian) report (to NASA) on the Soyuz TM-2 through Soyuz TM-15 mission anomalies, with those anomalies registered in this study, to illustrate the deficiency of official Russian-provided data.

“The Russians reported only trivial procedural deviations, while the flight crews involved in the missions confronted serious operational difficulties, sometimes life-threatening, which often would have called the success of a medevac mission into doubt.”

The heart of the problem:

That disturbing practice is now reasserting itself. For example, NASA now talks openly about a module separation problem not only on this recent landing, but on the previous landing six months ago – a major anomaly that to the best of my knowledge was never disclosed to the public before.

Another example: press sources say this is only the third “ballistic descent” for the ISS program, but actually it is the third for the new model Soyuz called ‘TMA’ – which began flights in 2002. The year before, one of the last of the ‘TM’ models, returning from the space station with millionaire ‘space tourist’ Dennis Tito, encountered another anomalous high-G descent which officials merely waved off as ‘crew error’.

Sometimes, even AFTER a space accident, the Russians have just shrugged off the problem and pretended it had no consequences. The most notorious example of this approach was in 1996-7 when their Mars-96 interplanetary probe went off course during launch, dumping its wreckage (including a number of small plutonium batteries) onto the Andes Mountains near the Chile-Bolivia border.

Russia’s best investigation team, led by emeritus designer Dmitriy Utkin, scoured the mission documentation and related hardware for months and concluded that there was no known reason for the probe to have failed (they stopped short of suggesting outright sabotage, although later in-flight vehicle failures in the last few years HAVE been blamed on American attacks).

Meantime they insisted that there was no radiation danger from the wreckage because it had actually sunk safely into the Pacific Ocean. This combination of downplaying and denial was dismaying.

The opposite attitude is critical to the safety of everyone who will stake their lives on the remedial measures taken based on professional accident investigations. Every mission anomaly is a clue to some needed repair or improvement of a spacecraft’s design or fabrication or operational envelope. NASA knew this, forgot it, and then on February 1, 2003, learned it again at a horrible cost in blood and treasure.

With future Soyuz flights becoming the sole crew access to the space station for many years, NASA needs to be an integral part of every incident investigation – not just be on the distribution list for executive summaries, whenever they are ultimately issued. There is a window of opportunity for NASA to press for this participation, due to the naming of an outside expert to head the investigation.

Control of the process has been taken out of the hands of representatives of the groups responsible for the mishap(s), which is a good sign if the action is more than a gesture.

This alarming Soyuz descent – no matter how close a “near-miss to disaster” it really turns out to have been – needs to be seen as a lighthouse for future navigation of the tricky waters of the international partnership behind the ISS.

Pusillanimous pussy-footing with Russian paranoia about their passion to conceal their ‘dirty space laundry’, and diplomacy-dictated toleration of brush-offs and continued cover-ups, is no way to keep faith with the lost Columbia astronauts, and with their predecessors in Russia and the U.S. And it’s no way to keep future names off the already too long list of spaceflight casualties.

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