Yesterday, the Soyuz rocket carrying an American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut failed, forcing the crew capsule to make a dramatic ballistic descent back to Earth, just as the abort system is intended to do. The rocket failure means the Soyuz spacecraft and booster will be grounded until the problem is found, which leaves the world in a unique position: for the first time, the only access to space is not via the United States or Russia. It’s through China. It also may be time for America to re-evaluate its near-term crewed spaceflight plans.
Since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, the United States has relied on Russian Soyuz capsules to get to and from the International Space Station. It’s not like this was a bad idea; The Soyuz is by far the most successful spacecraft humans have ever created, having been in active service (with many upgrades) since 1967.
It’s a brilliant design, incredibly flexible, robust, and, as we saw yesterday, very good at keeping crews alive (if uncomfortable) when disaster strikes. Unfortunately, yesterday’s mishap was just the latest in a series of issues that suggest that quality control may be slipping at Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.
There’s been two launch failures of the Soyuz-derived Progress cargo freighter, one in April of 2015 and one in December 2016. More disturbing, though, was just a couple months ago, in August, when a hole was discovered in the orbital module of a docked Soyuz spacecraft, which caused an atmospheric leak on the ISS.
Alarmingly, the hole was determined to be “deliberate spoilage,” meaning that it was deliberately drilled, and then plugged, with the hole becoming a problem when the plug material failed.
The fact that a deliberately-drilled hole could get past quality control inspections is bad enough; to make things worse, it was reported that some Russian officials were accusing American astronauts of drilling the hole, which is ludicrous.
With the quality control issues, lack of trust, and the many, many other complexities currently happening with America’s relationship with Russia, maybe it’s time to take advantage of this pause and look into some other options. It also helps that NASA and Rocosmos arrangement ends in November, so it’s the perfect time to really rethink things.
Long-term, NASA has a plan for getting back regular and consistent access to space, by opening up the orbital-taxi service to private companies. Currently Boeing and SpaceX have been chosen, and both are expected to launch spacecraft with crews by 2020 at the earliest, which still leaves NASA with at least a year of having to bum rides to the space station.
Luckily, there could be another option: China’s Shenzhou spacecraft.
China has been launching crews in the Shenzhou since 2003, and the Shenzhou has performed pretty flawlessly for all seven of its crewed flights, which have included docking with two small space stations.
The Shenzhou can be thought of as an evolution of the Soyuz design, so it retains all of the Soyuz’ fundamental design advantages while expanding on it, being bigger, both in the crew return capsule and the orbital module, which is cylindrical on the Shenzhou as opposed to the roughly spherical one on the Soyuz.
As far as if a Shenzhou can physically dock with the ISS, it certainly should be possible. The Shenzhou uses a docking system that is compatible with the International Docking System Standard, which traces its roots all the way back to the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission of 1975.
Some sources claim it’s not exactly the same and would require modification, but even if this is the case, the issue has been talked about for years and installing a completely compatible docking system really isn’t a big deal.
China’s been taking a very slow and measured pace to their space program. The last Shenzhou launch was almost exactly two years ago, and the next one is planned for 2020, where it’s planned to dock with the first module of China’s new modular space station, itself a design very reminiscent of the Soviet/Russian Mir, and quite similar to several of the modules currently used on the ISS.
China certainly has the Shenzhou for that mission already built, or at least pretty close to finished. If NASA and China were to enter an agreement where NASA would buy Shenzhous and launchers to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, it could be beneficial for everyone, and, planned properly, could likely be ready to go even before Russia completes their evaluation of what went wrong on yesterday’s launch.
China could finally get involved with the ISS project, and get some of their taikonauts on board to train for their eventual independent space station. Alternately, it’s possible China’s new space station modules could be docked to the ISS to replace some of the oldest modules that will be reaching the end of their design life soon.
China could get resources and a partner to gain experience building and launching spacecraft, in parallel to their own independent goals; more experience and money are never bad things to have in a space program. They could maintain their more deliberate pace in developing their space station and other hardware while simultaneously building taxi Shenzhou craft for NASA.
NASA would get a new way into space while Boeing and SpaceX finish their work, in a spacecraft that’s more modernized than the Soyuz and, hopefully, free of the strange quality control issues and undercurrent of hostility that’s been encountered.
It’s not like China and the U.S. have a particularly great relationship at the moment, but we sure as hell do a lot of business together, and that’s not going to change any time soon. NASA and China’s Manned Space Agency (CMS) can certainly work together.
The Soyuz has had an incredible run, and this is not a slight against the spacecraft itself, which, I’ll be honest, is my favorite human-built spacecraft of all time.
But we can’t expect our astronauts to put up with dangerous bullshit like deliberate drill holes and increasingly common launch failures. The Russians aren’t the only game in town anymore, and it may be time to remind them of that.