Soyuz FG fails during ascent – Soyuz MS-10 crew safe after ballistic entry abort

by Chris Gebhardt

The Russian federal space agency, Roscosmos, launched their Soyuz MS-10 crew vehicle with two new crewmembers that were set for the International Space Station.  However, the launch – which took place on Thursday at 0840 UTC from Baikonur – failed a few minutes into flight. Soyuz MS-10 was then aborted on a ballistic entry, before safely landing downrange of the launch site.

The crewed Soyuz, which would normally ferry three people to the Station, was carrying a reduced crew complement as part of Russia’s initiative to keep their total crew presence on Station to just two until the launch, late next year, of their primary science lab, Nauka.

However, those plans are unlikely to apply now Soyuz MS-10 has failed to arrive at the ISS, with the Soyuz FG likely to be grounded for some time as a State Commision invesigation takes place.

Soyuz MS-10 Background:

The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft (serial No. 740 and callsign “Burlak” – a burlak being a person who hauled barges and other vessels upstream from the 17th to 20th centuries in the Russian Empire) was in build operations for several years in preparation for what was a scheduled 6-month mission to the International Space Station.

Earlier this year, Soyuz MS-10 successfully passed a series of pressure and acoustic tests to verify its fitness to carry crew to orbit, a process completed on 20 July with certification of the craft’s hermeticity – airtight-ness.

By 14 August, the core stage of the Soyuz-FG rocket – to which the four strap-on liquid rocket boosters would be mounted – was in the Launch Vehicle Integration and Test Facility (LV ITF) for pre-mate processing, signaling the start of launcher integration.Booster mate operations began the following day.

Five weeks later, the two-person crew entered final training as integration of their Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft and Soyuz-FG rocket continued.

Final training activities included fit and leak checks of their flight suits as well as hands-on checkouts inside the Soyuz MS-10 craft for the radio communications system, laser ranging system, data files, flight program, and cargo.

That same day, 26 September, Soyuz MS-10 was officially cleared for fueling with propellant and compressed gases by the Technical Management team.

On 3 October, after a Designer’s Inspection of the craft clear it for flight, Soyuz MS-10 was mated to its adaptor – the hardware that connects it to the top of the Soyuz-FG rocket’s third stage.

Soyuz MS-10 was then encapsulated into its payload fairing and moved from the Spacecraft Assembly and Testing Facility to the LV ITF on 6 October.  

Soyuz MS-10 mission patch. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Once there, Soyuz MS-10 was mated to the top of the Soyuz-FG third stage before the emergency rescue system – that will pull the crew to safety in the event of a mishap during the count or first few minutes of launch – was fitted to the top of the payload fairing.

Before today, the emergency escape system had never been needed on the Soyuz-FG rocket, but it was used on 26 September 1983 during the Soyuz T-10-1 launch.  In the final seconds of that count, the Soyuz T rocket caught fire on the launch pad, and the launch escape system pulled the crew away from the rocket just two seconds before the vehicle exploded.

That incident was – until now – the only time in spaceflight history that a launch abort system had been used with a crew onboard the spacecraft.

For Soyuz MS-10, the craft and its third stage were mated to the already-integrated second and first stages before final checks cleared the rocket for transport to the launch pad, which occurred on Tuesday, 9 October.

Per the plan, Soyuz MS-10 launched at 0840:15 UTC – 04:40:15 EDT (and 14:40:15 local time) from Site 1/5 at Baikonur – the same launch pad from which Yuri Gagarin embarked on the first human spaceflight on 12 April 1961.

Location of the ISS in relation to Baikonur at the time of Soyuz MS-10’s scheduled launch on 11 Oct. 2018. (Credit: GoISSWatch app & GoSoftWorks)

Overall, this was the 139th Soyuz spacecraft launch and the 65th flight of a Soyuz-FG rocket, which had a 100% success rate since its introduction on 20 May 2001. That was until today.

After leaving the pad, the Soyuz-FG pitched East-Northeast to align itself on the proper azimuth for the 51.6° orbital inclination of the International Space Station.  At the time of launch, the Station was 1,445 km east-northeast of the launch site at an altitude of 414 km.

The Baikonur Cosmodrome lies at 45.96° N, meaning rockets headed for the Space Station (as with Florida ISS launches) must travel in a northeasterly direction, not due east, even though the first ISS module was launched from Baikonur.

This is because due east flights from Baikonur would over-fly parts of China and Mongolia – a flight path Russia seeks to avoid so that all stages of powered ascent from Baikonur take place over Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation.

Normally, it takes 8 minute 45 second for the Soyuz-FG rocket to deposit Soyuz MS-10 into orbit – at which point the craft’s power generating solar arrays and communications antennas will immediately deploy. However, this mission suffered a failure at just over two minutes into flight, around the time of booster sep.

It is not clear as to the cause of the failure, but onboard views showed the crew being shaken around at this point of the flight, before the feed cut from the capsule view. It is normal for the crew to be jolted during staging. However, this appeared to be more violent than usual.

With the camera view returning to a long-range camera vantage point, the usual clean sep of the boosters was replaced by debris in the field of view, showing something was seriously wrong with the flight.

Then, via translations, “booster failure” was heard, with the crew reporting they were weightless – when they should have been pushed firmly into their seats via the force of the rocket’s propulsion.

The Soyuz MS-10 then aborted, using a ballistic entry mode, which is a sharper and more violent (higher g-force) entry. Thankfully, they landed safely were recovered by Search and Recovery forces. The crew are said to be in good shape.

A call from Russian controllers to the ISS noted that the crew “only” experienced g-forces of between 6 and 7, likely due to the lack of velocity at the point of failure.

The crew:

Launching aboard Soyuz MS-10 was one veteran cosmonaut, Aleksey Nikolayevich Ovchinin (Roscosmos), and one rookie astronaut, Nick Hague (NASA).

Aleksey Ovchinin:

Aleksey Ovchinin was born on 28 September 1971 in Rybinsk, Yaroslavl Oblast, Russian SFSR and spent two years as a cadet at the Borisoglebsk Higher Military Pilot School before moving on to Yeisk Higher Military Pilot School from 1990-1992.

Alexey Ovchinin. (Credit: Roscosmos)

While at Yeisk, Ovchinin qualified as a pilot-engineer, after which he served as a pilot instructor in the Training Aviation Regiment (TAR) at Yeisk Higher Military Pilot School until February 1998.

Following his TAR post, Ovchinin was appointed commander of the aviation section of Krasnodar Military Aviation Institute before moving on to command the aviation unit of the 70th Separate Test Training Aviation Regiment of Special Purpose.

Throughout this portion of his career, Ovchinin amassed over 1,300 flying hours in Yakovlev Yak-52 and Aero L-39 Albatros aircraft.

In 2006, he was selected as a cosmonaut candidate and began training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center and participated in water landing Soyuz training in June 2008 before qualifying as a test cosmonaut on 9 June 2009.

On 26 April 2010, he was finally certified as a cosmonaut, after which he was dismissed from the Armed Services and classified as “reserve.”

Ovchinin aboard the ISS during Expedition 47. (Credit: NASA)

Ovchinin was subsequently assigned as part of the backup crew for Soyuz TMA-16M (March-September 2015) before earning his post as part of the prime crew for Soyuz TMA-20M, for which he served as Commander.

Soyuz TMA-20M launched on 18 March 2016 and delivered Ovchinin and two other crewmates to the International Space Station for Expeditions 47 and 48.

During Expedition 47, Ovchinin served as Flight Engineer 3, and was on the Station when SpaceX CRS-8 arrived carrying Bigelow’s inflatable BEAM module – which was attached to the ISS for in-orbit qualification.

For Expedition 48, Ovchinin moved up to serve as Flight Engineer 1 and, from inside ISS, assisted with two U.S. EVAs (spacewalks) – the first of which installed an International Docking Adaptor for Commercial Crew and the second of which retracted a thermal radiator on the Station’s Port truss.

Ovchinin and his two crewmates returned to Earth on 7 September 2016 on the Soyuz TMA-20M after 172 days in orbit.

With his landing, Ovchinin became the final person to command a Soyuz TMA-M series spacecraft, which was replaced by the Soyuz MS-series he commanded on his second voyage today, albeit short-lived.

Tyler Nicklaus “Nick” Hague:

Hague was born in Belleville, Kansas, in 1975 – graduating from high school in Hoxie, Kansas, before attending the United States Air Force Academy, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Astronautical Engineering in 1988.

That same year, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force in May 1998 before starting his Masters work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning an advanced degree in Astronautical Engineering in 2000.

In August 2000, he was assigned to Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he worked on advanced spacecraft technologies.  In 2003, he attended the flight test engineering course at the United States Air Force Test Pilot School, Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Following graduation in 2004, he worked at the 416th Flight Test Squadron, testing F-16, F-15 and T-38 aircraft.  In late 2004, he deployed for five months to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, conducting experimental airborne reconnaissance.

Nick Hague and his wife, Lieutenant Colonel Catie Hague (Credit: NASA/Josh Valcarcel)

In 2006, Hague joined the Department of Astronautics faculty at the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado, teaching courses in introductory astronautics, linear control system analysis and design, and scuba.

In 2009, he was selected for the Air Force Fellows program in Washington, D.C., assigned as a member of the personal staff in the U.S. Senate to advise on matters of national defense and foreign policy.

Following the fellowship, Hague served in the Pentagon as a congressional appropriations liaison for United States Central Command before being assigned in 2012 to the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, Crystal City, Virginia, as the Deputy Division Chief for research and development.

Hague worked there until 2013 when he was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate, upon which he reported to the Johnson Space Center in Texas for two years of astronaut training.

In June 2016, Hague was promoted to Colonel – the same year he was selected for his first spaceflight as a member of the Expeditions 57 and 58 increments on the International Space Station had he successfully launched on Soyuz MS-10. 

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