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Roscosmos will launch unmanned Soyuz to ISS on February 21

Roscosmos today announced that it will launch the unmanned Soyuz to ISS on February 21st, only a two-day delay after doing a quick inspection of its outer surface for possible damage following the coolant leak of a Progress freighter on February 11th.

BtB’s stringer Jay provided me this translation of the announcement at the link:

The Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft has been checked and is beginning to be prepared for launch. The preparations suspended the day before at Baikonur will resume tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.
The launch is scheduled for the 20th of February.

The ship was inspected. No maliciously drilled holes were found. We decided not to wait any longer. In any case, a refueled ship must either be launched or sent to a museum.

Update: removal of the launch vehicle to the launch pad on February 18, launch on February 21″ [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words are truly intriguing. It appears Roscosmos is desperately trying to convince the world that the repeated recent leaks to Soyuz and Progress spacecraft are not related to sabotage on the ground. At the same, Roscosmos has never told us the results of its investigation into the 2018 hole in a Soyuz capsule that someone drilled and then patched before launch. It seems incredibly unlikely that the two recent leaks in the exterior coolant systems of two different spacecrafts were both caused by impact from a micrometeorite or tiny piece of space junk. Two such impacts could of course occur this frequently, but for both to happen to such similar locations on only Russian spacecraft seems beyond improbable.

Either way, the decision makes some sense. The available lifeboats on ISS right now are really insufficient. Better to get this launched. More important, they had already begun fueling it, and once that is done the clock was running. They have to launch by a certain time.

Meanwhile it would be wise for NASA to begin arranging new emergency lifeboat arrangements with SpaceX as well as Boeing (once it finally gets Starliner operational). Depending on the Russians for even part of this responsibility seems ill advised. If preplanned properly, SpaceX could certainly launch one of its Dragon manned capsules quickly in an emergency.

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  • Richard M

    It appears Roscosmos is desperately trying to convince the world that the repeated recent leaks to Soyuz and Progress spacecraft are not related to sabotage on the ground.

    Is “sabotage” the right word here?

    Or just shoddy workmanship (and accompanying shoddy QA/QC)?

  • Richard M

    On further reflection, I can see that you might be riffing on the passage (“maliciously drilled holes”) from the Telegram post of the Roscosmos press release.

    I suppose, though, that I assumed that this was just a bloody-minded allusion of Roscosmos leadership’s continued insistence that the hole in MS-09 was deliberately drilled somehow by a mentally unbalanced Serena Auñon-Chancellor.

    I am left to wonder at the idea that there is some cohort of Energia or Roscosmos workers who keep trying to sabotage Soyuz vehicles in critical ways. If there indeed such people, who would do this, and why would they want to try to endanger Russian cosmonauts (and, indeed, US astronauts)? Or is it some other party infiltrating these production facilities to inflict the sabotage?

    Of course, even if this (quite wild) theory is true, it would still be the case that Roscosmos quality control never caught these things. But then, there is plenty of evidence beyond the holes that Roscosmos has been struggling in that department in recent years….

  • Richard M: One must remember that Roscosmos underpays its employees terribly, even its most important engineers. One must also remember that Russian society is rife with corruption. I would therefore not be surprised if there are a lot of disgruntled workers at Baikonur.

    Assuming for the moment that these holes are man-made, their nature suggests a very smart strategy. Like the hole drilled in the Soyuz in 2018, the coolant leaks did not leak immediately, but after the capsule was in space for a long time, thus separating the sabotage from the saboteur. This suggests a temporary patch — like the one found on the 2018 Soyuz, manually placed on the hole.

    The 2018 Soyuz leak was also small enough to not threaten anyone’s life. It was detected, and there was plenty of time to find it before it posed any threat at all, and even more time to patch it.

    The two recent coolant leaks also have posed relatively little threat to life. Neither directly threatened the atmosphere on the station, or its own cooling system. The December 2022 Soyuz leak has caused a lifeboat issue on ISS, but not anything that can’t be handled. The Progress leak on February 11th caused no risk to any life, especially because the Progress doesn’t carry passengers. Its occurrance however sure is suspicious and now puts the bigwigs at Roscosmos in a very uncomfortable position.

    Finally, if all the leaks are sabotage, they serve to show the world the serious quality control problems that exist at Roscosmos. This once again makes Roscosmos’s bigwigs look very bad.

    This of course is all wild speculation, and very likely wrong. It must be considered, however, because it is also not out of the realm of possibility.

  • George C

    I have created such coolant leaks myself on projects using poorly manufactured reject scrap tubing a 16 year old can afford combined with inexperience in bending and the need for unbending and rebending. Pinhole leaks after 20 miles of highway operation. Good Times.

  • Richard M

    Hi Bob,

    These leaks did not directly endanger any cosmonauts, to be sure, but…if there is a need to suddenly evacuate the station (say, a big MOD depressurizing critical parts of the station, or some sudden catastrophic systems failure), then it would suddenly become a life-endangering development.

    Well, it’s all very strange.

  • Richard M: Yup, as you say, it’s all very strange. But then, we live in strange times, as illustrated by my blacklist column yesterday.

  • Richard M

    Hello Bob,

    There’s an interesting discussion underway about all this right now, with the Off Nominal guys interviewing Eric Berger on a live stream:

    Interesting tidbits from Eric:

    1) Eric was fairly convinced that the MS-22 hole was, as Roscosmos and NASA claimed, a freak instance of MMOD damage. But now, with the Progress incident, it’s hard for him to accept.
    2) This is how good a partner SpaceX was to NASA: When the leak happened in December, SpaceX had, within 48 hours, come to NASA with a complete and compelling plan to bring ALL of the astronauts home on the Crew Dragon – not just Frank Rubio, but the Russians, too. They went to Roscosmos with it, and while they didn’t turn their noses up at it…it became clear that they couldn’t easily do that, given the politics of the thing. It remains an option, however, if something else goes wrong…
    3) NASA is in a difficult spot, because the ISS simply is not built to just cut off the Russians and operate without their components. The Axiom station could fix that, but Axiom has now pushed back delivery of its first module to 2025, and Eric’s sense is that it’s not likely to make 2025, either. So far, Eric has no sense that NASA is building any sort of emergency propulsion stage on a crash program, unless it’s a well kept secret from any of his sources.
    4) Eric senses that Roscosmos under Borisov is playing nicer with NASA now as part of a (so far, unsuccessful) effort to get more money from NASA to help pay for some of this basic maintenance and fixes.
    5) “Technically it’s a good question of whether the station can keep flying, but the NASA people sure seem to think everything is going to be OK, and are pretty confident in that…so I tend to trust their judgment on that. But these vehicle failures…these have to be *very* concerning to NASA despite what they’re saying publicly – or what they’re not saying!”

    That aside, the scuttlebutt is that one of the four commercial LEO space station developers NASA has given seed money to has decided it can’t close the business case. Apparently NASA has decided that it wants to spend a billion dollars a year, and no more, on commercial LEO station time. So if there’s one station, that’s a billion for them; if it is split between two stations, that’s only $500 million apiece. It’s unclear if that is enough for one of these stations to close a business case. So it means finding enough other customers to make it work.

  • Edward

    Richard M,
    It may be more than just scuttlebutt that there is concern about too many commercial space stations.

    Robert posted also about NASA’s expected needs for the commercial space stations, but in the linked Space News report, Jeff Foust notes that NASA has shown concerns that four commercial space stations may not be able to find enough commercial (non-NASA) customers to stay in business:

    links to:

    One executive, though, said that NASA needs to narrow down that list. “We’re concerned that, with four competitors in game for very much longer, we’re just diluting what is only a nascent market, if there is a market,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, chief government and external relations officer at Axiom Space, during a panel at the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 9.

    That dilution, she argued, would ultimately delay the development of commercial stations. “We’re worried that, without very clear milestones for downselect and consolidation, we’re actually going to extend the period of time it takes to get thigs on low Earth orbit after ISS,” she said. “We have some concerns about that approach.”

    If it means finding enough other customers to make it work, then the question is whether this can be done before the stations are on orbit and operational. It may be a catch 22 situation. Without the stations on orbit, they can’t sign up enough potential customers. Without enough potential customers, they can’t get enough investor support to get them on orbit.

    In the movies, you would hear a voice in your head say, “If you build it, [they] will come,” so you build it and they come Also in the movies, “In space no one can hear you scream” in frustration of the catch 22.

    Some days just go better than others. This may not be one of those days.

  • Edward wrote: “NASA has shown concerns that four commercial space stations may not be able to find enough commercial (non-NASA) customers to stay in business.”

    Actually, the NASA official said no such thing. This comment was made by an Axiom official, which clearly has a conflict of interest on the matter and would love to convince NASA to abandon its competitors. The NASA official merely responded with the equivalent of “We have made no such determination.”

  • Richard M

    Hi Edward,

    Yeah, I saw Ditmar’s remarks. But as Bob says…she – and her employer, more to the point – have a vested interest in pushing that position. Why, just look at how different the tune she was singing in her last gig!

    And the Off-Nominal guys did bring this up with Eric Berger, too. Berger hinted that there may be a sense that NASA probably *will* have to cut down to just subsidizing two space stations, and that may be easier anyway if one of the teams has decided to bail on it. But NASA is reluctant to make that cutdown yet, and that in turn triggered a larger conversation about how NASA has been simply moving too slowly on the commercial LEO destinations effort. The ISS may not last until 2030.

    Berger and Colangelo discussed one other wild card lurking out there, too: What if SpaceX decides to just offer up suitably equipped crewed Starships for stays in low earth orbit? At a stroke that would be more pressurized space than any of these teams have, and it would be cheaper, too. You wouldn’t even need to buy a separate ride up: It would an all-in-one package. That could rip away most of the non-NASA customers for these stations. SpaceX has articulated no plans for any such thing so far, but that doesn’t mean that they might not try it at some point, because it wouldn’t be a massive investment for them to attempt it.

    And $1 billion in NASA money is almost certainly not enough to close the business case for ONE LEO space station, let alone two.

  • Yo,

    I think this BtB post from 2019 is apropos to this discussion:

    Charles Walker: the first commercial astronaut

    As I wrote then: “I personally suspect there is real money to be made here, should someone decide to go for it.” And I was referring to manufacturing useful drugs in orbit. Provide a reasonable cheap access (SpaceX + others) and competing stations designed efficiently with profit in mind, and there will be more than enough customers for several space stations.

    We must be careful we do not fall into the thinking of the rocket companies in the 1990s, who could not imagine enough business for their rockets because the cost was so high. It never occurred to them that if they lowered the launch cost, that business would appear.

  • Edward

    You’re right. I misread the article.

  • pzatchok

    I am starting to wonder if the Russians might not have a mentally unbalanced employee doing all the damage.
    Not a saboteur under contract or with any greater goal in mind just someone who thinks its fun to get away with it.

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