Great news: Russians successfully launch Soyuz rocket to ISS!

By Phil Plait | October 31, 2011 6:00 am

Yesterday, October 30, 2011, the Russian space agency Roscosmos successfully launched a new Progress spacecraft on a Soyuz rocket, the same kind of rocket that failed in August and caused such worry.

This means it looks like the Russians have indeed figured out what went wrong in the previous launch and fixed the issue. I’ll be happier with two successful launches rather than one — they may have gotten it right by accident — but still, I bet a lot of folks at NASA are breathing easier now, and this will ease discussion of de-crewing the ISS, which NASA was considering a few months ago.

The Progress is in orbit and scheduled to dock with the ISS on November 2. It’s carrying nearly 3 tons of food, fuel, and supplies for the astronauts. Because of this success, another rocket launch is planned on November 13, carrying three more astronauts up to ISS. Usually there is a crew of six on board, but three of the six astronauts came home in September, leaving three to stay on ISS until more could be launched. The September mission bringing three of the crew back to Earth had to occur then because the vehicles used to bring them home can only stay docked on the ISS for about 200 days before the age of the fuel becomes a problem.

So this is good news for NASA, Roscosmos, and the men aboard ISS, who could probably use six more hands helping out. I’m glad to see this problem — which could have been potentially disastrous — on its way to being behind us.

Image credit: NASA

Related posts:

NASA ponders de-crewing the space station in November
Soyuz rocket flaw found?


Comments (23)

  1. Six

    So glad to hear this launch went fine. Out of curiosity, does anyone know how long the long term people on the ISS tend to stay up there?

  2. Orlando

    Soyuz spacecraft has an outstanding record, even taking on account the few failures they had in 40+ years. It is the world’s safest, most cost-effective human spaceflight system ever done. Russia’s space budget is ridiculously low compared to NASA’s.

    Russian spacecrafts. They’re ugly, they’re old… but they’re safe and cheap.

  3. Phil,
    We are still working down the path of “decrew” of ISS, even though Progress 45P launched successfully. We have to be prepared for that eventuality in case 28S still is not able to make it to ISS for whatever reason. Currently there is only about a week from 28S dock to 27S undock in November, which is not enough time to configure the systems if it turns out 28S does not launch. Conservatism is always the best policy in our business.

    Also, you said “usually there is a crew of six on board”, which is true. However, there are still normal periods of only 3 onboard during crew handovers. Normally that period is only one or two weeks but due to the Soyuz launch vehicle issues the 27S to 28S period is a much longer 2 months.

    Ad Astra,
    Ben H.
    Mission Control, Houston, TX

  4. Thomas

    I agree with Orlando. It’s weird to see this slightly overblown fuss about the Soyuzs’ capabilities.
    It is a true and unsung marvel of space technology. It sits right up there with the space shuttle and it’s still in operation. The Russians do deserve credit for it. Big time.

  5. VinceRN

    It’s great that they got back online so fast, the Russians really are very good at this. However, I don’t think this alleviates the worry about decrewing much. It seems like there are pretty strong forces in this country, including our President and some higher up folks at NASA, that want us out of the manned space flight business.

  6. Nigel Depledge

    Th0omas (5) said:

    I agree with Orlando. It’s weird to see this slightly overblown fuss about the Soyuzs’ capabilities.
    It is a true and unsung marvel of space technology. It sits right up there with the space shuttle and it’s still in operation. The Russians do deserve credit for it. Big time.


    I would even go so far as to say that Soyuz has a better safety record than Shuttle.

  7. @Nigel

    “I would even go so far as to say that Soyuz has a better safety record than Shuttle.”

    The math is easy to do. There have been 110 manned Soyuz missions and 2 failures – that equals a failure rate – by mission – of 1.82%. By contrast the shuttle had 135 missions with 2 failures which equals a 1.48% failure rate. Now, if you stop there it’s not completely representative of the Soyuz’s record because the Soyuz rocket family has had hundreds of launches in addition to the 110 manned missions. Also, the two fatal Soyuz accidents were the first and eleventh flights, many decades ago. Lastly, only 4 people died in Soyuz accidents as compared to 14 on Space Shuttle accidents.

    So, depending on how you look at the numbers, the Soyuz and Space Shuttle safety records are fairly similar in some ways. I don’t make this point to necessarily criticize the Soviet/Russian space program history or anything, but rather to point out the subtlety in these kinds of things. People try to make it black and white and use these kinds of comparisons to make political arguments (for or against the US or Russian programs) when really we are all doing the best we can but Space is a “harsh mistress” and mistakes will happen.

    Ad Astra,
    – Ben H.
    Mission Control, Houston, TX

    PS. It’s also interesting to compare the Apollo program to the Space Shuttle program. The Apollo program only saw 12 active crews, counting Apollo 1, which amounts to a fatality rate of 8.3%. How often have you heard the Apollo program referred to as a failure and a waste? What about the Space Shuttle program which only killed less than 2% of its crews? Perhaps the controversy some people raise of the Space Shuttle program has more to do with ideology and politics than the engineering and safety record? Just something to think about.

    PPS. The soyuz program had other non-fatal accidents that resulted in a loss of mission such as Soyuz 18a… making the data even more subtle than people like to pretend:

  8. Hmm.

    If it was a ‘quality control’ issue that brought down the last one, then that could mean an overall failure rate that’s relatively low, one that isn’t going to be verified as fixed by one or two (or twenty) launches.

    Even a 1 in 100 failure rate would be unacceptable when there’s ‘onauts on the line.

  9. Very good achievement, congrats to Russians.

  10. Kappy

    “Even a 1 in 100 failure rate would be unacceptable when there’s ‘onauts on the line.”

    I disagree. While the loss of astronauts is sad & tragic, I think there is an acceptable amount of risk that needs to be undertaken in endeavors like these and to me it’s probably even higher than 1% loss. Think about other great periods of exploration in history, a 1% loss of life is probably much lower than the first explorers who tried to sail around the world or to the new world, or those who tried to reach the north pole or climb Everest (I couldn’t find exact figures for these). When humans participate in activities such as these, there is going to be loss of life and the explorers understand that. It’s the engineers job to reduce the loss as much as possible. Also I do believe there are limits, and while I don’t know what those are personally I think that society is currently too restrictive.


  11. @ Ben H.

    You present the fatality numbers and percentages of the NASA Space Shuttle programs throughout the years. It is an impressive less than 2% fatality rate. With the successes the programs had over the years and the safety rating they had, why did NASA decide to end them? It does not seem like anything was necessarily wrong with these programs. What did the Space Shuttles lack that the J-2X will have?

  12. Kappy

    @Tyler LeQuia

    Not speaking for Ben here, but I don’t think fatality rate was the only concern. The shuttle was a boondoggle in terms of costs. It never flew as cheaply or frequently as intended. It’s complete overkill for simple crew transport to ISS. Also it was restricted to LEO and would not allow us to extend our manned reach further out into space.

    It was a great engineering achievement but a practical failure. Cutting it lose was the right thing to do, but it was idiotic to do so without another means for manned travel already in place.


  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    Good news indeed. :-)

    Although given their past record of consistent successful launches hardly unexpected.

    Space travel, like mountaineering, like motor-racing, like sky-diving and so many other things that people love to do is intrinsically dangerous and always will be. Life generally is dangerous and no leaves it alive. 😉

    In the end we all die of something. Personally I’d rather it wasn’t Alzheimers & old age and I think that goes for an awful lot of other folks too incl. most of the astronauts who volunteer to go into space because its what they deeply wish to do.

    You either decide to take the risk – as minimised as it reasonably can be but no more – or you sit at home and wait to die after a lifetime spent risking and doing nothing. I fear today we have become far too risk-averse and afraid of taking the risks that mean we are boldly going and boldly exploring where none have gone before. :-(

  14. @Tyler and @Kappy,
    The question of what the Space Shuttle accomplished and whether it was a program that should have been ended when it was is much more than just an engineering question (which is the only expertise I can claim to have in this area). From an engineering perspective, the Space Shuttle did an amazing job at accomplishing most of the mission profiles it was designed for – although not for the cost and efficiency originally advertised. The space shuttle was capable of 3 major types of missions: Satellite deployment and servicing, serving as an orbiting laboratory that can return science easily and safely, and space station construction. The other thing to remember is that the Space Shuttle was an engineering test project in many ways. It was a huge step forward from our previous programs and demonstrated new technology very well.

    With the ISS construction complete, it’s hard to justify the Space Shuttle since there were no major mission profiles left for it to support. As Kappy said:

    “It’s complete overkill for simple crew transport to ISS.”

    The logical step, from an engineering perspective, would be to retire the aging Shuttle fleet after the ISS was complete and use the lessons learned in the last 3 decades to move forward and design a new exploration system that fits the mission profiles that we want to do next – which would likely be two-fold – ISS crew transfer and deep space exploration. These two niches are very different and would likely require different vehicles, but could feasibly be done by the same vehicle. All of this is exactly what the Constellation program aimed to accomplish. It was the next logical step.

    Of course, politics and money are always a factor and have played a major role in the decisions that were made. In my opinion the Space Shuttle program should have come to an end sometime between 2010 and 2015 but I think we have messed up the next step a bit and it’s going to take some work to recover.

    This is all just my opinion of course.
    – Ben H.
    Mission Control, Houston, TX

  15. Nigel Depledge

    Ben H (8) said:

    So, depending on how you look at the numbers, the Soyuz and Space Shuttle safety records are fairly similar in some ways.

    Fair point. I was factoring in the number of people who had died using each system, but, as you say, the failure rate in terms of failures per launch is lower for Shuttle than for Soyuz, unless you count all the other launches (such as Progress launches) of systems related to Soyuz.

    If you play Devil’s Advocate, you could state simply that no other launch vehicle has killed 14 people, but this fails to acknowledge that Shuttle had the largest crew capacity of any space vehicle yet made.

  16. Orlando

    Even though, comparing Soyuz (technology from early 60’s now-defunct USSR) and Shuttle (technology from 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s USA) safety records is somehow depressing, not to mention the large budget gap between both space agencies.

    It seems like Russians could’ve gone and back from Mars easily if only they had NASA’s budget instead their own.

    Its like buying a brand new luxury car vs. buying an old model city car and having the same number of breakdowns, depending on how you look at the numbers, earning a minimum wage, to go to the same place.

    Not trying to start a political argument, I’m not a commie or something like that. Just willing to put things into perspective, just for economy’s and science’s sake.

  17. Dan

    I want to second Kappy re. fatality rates. A 1% fatality rate is actually pretty admirable considering the dangers of space travel. I’m betting most astronauts would be fine with that. They know going into space involves risk.

    I remember reading that one of the Apollo astronauts, maybe Buzz Aldrin, was asked about the risk factor and whether he was concerned. He said he was pretty sure he’d come back alive, but wasn’t so sure the mission of landing on the moon could be accomplished successfully.

  18. Gus Grissom is quoted as saying: “The exploration of space is worth the loss of life.”

    He died in the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967.

    Any space exploration fatality should be considered a failure and the engineers should do everything in their power to correct the mistake. But some risk is inherent and must be accepted or we will not accomplish amazing things.

    – Ben H.

  19. James

    Interesting numbers… personally I’d bundle all flights together, whether crewed or not. A failure is failure after all.

  20. @James,
    the problem with that is that a failure that destroys an unmanned astronaut may not have killed the crew. For instance, the Progress 44P failure in August was a failure of the third stage to ignite, which caused it to crash to Earth when it didn’t reach orbit. The crewed Soyuz version of that rocket has a launch escape tower that could have pulled the crew capsule away so that it could re-enter on parachutes. It would not have been fatal (most likely).

    So maybe bundling all flights together for the Soyuz would give you something like a 0.3% failure rate but there are a lot of caveats that would have to go along with that number for reasons like above. There are other small variations in the crewed and uncrewed rockets that could have affected the launch history.

    – Ben H.

  21. Ben

    I’m surprised you haven’t blogged a thing about China’s space station launch and unmanned docking today…


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