Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.

Russia offers conflicting causes for Nauka engine firing

Russian officials have now suggested two explanations for the accidently ignition of the engines on the new Nauka module to ISS, neither of which appears to have involved any real investigation.

Vladimir Solovyov, flight director of the space station’s Russian segment, blamed the incident on a “short-term software failure.” In a statement released Friday by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, Solovyov said because of the failure, a direct command to turn on the lab’s engines was mistakenly implemented.

He added the incident was “quickly countered by the propulsion system” of another Russian component at the station and “at the moment, the station is in its normal orientation” and all its systems “are operating normally.”

Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin later Friday suggested that “human factor” may have been at play. “There was such euphoria (after Nauka successfully docked with the space station), people relaxed to some extent,” Rogozin said in a radio interview. “Perhaps one of the operators didn’t take into account that the control system of the block will continue to adjust itself in space. And it determined a moment three hours after (the docking) and turned on the engines.” [emphasis mine]

So, was it human error? Or was it the software programming? Or both?

No matter what the specific cause, these conflicting stories, thrown out in almost an offhand manner, demonstrate that the real fundamental cause was the terrible, sloppy, and error-prone quality control systems at Roscosmos and all the aerospace companies it has taken over since the Putin administration consolidated Russia’s aerospace industry into a single government-run corporation.

These kinds of failures seem to happen with Russia now repeatedly. From launch aborts to launch failures to corruption in contracting to corruption in engine construction to plain simple sabotage, mistakes and errors and poor planning and dishonesty seem to hound their space effort at every level. Thank God Americans no longer have to fly on a Soyuz capsule, though one American on board ISS is still scheduled to come home on one.

Without competition and freedom, there is no pressure in Russia to improve, to improvise, to rethink, and to clean house when a management gets stale or corrupt. Instead, operations stultify and develop dry rot. They can’t see problems or even fix them efficiently. If anything, management circles the wagons to protect itself, while often deliberately ignoring the problems.

Rocket science is hard. It can quickly kill people when done poorly.

I think it will be a great relief to end this partnership. And the sooner the better.


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  • We Are Borg

    Software quality assurance much?

  • Ray Van Dune

    “Perhaps one of the operators didn’t take into account that the control system of the block will continue to adjust itself in space. And it determined a moment three hours after (the docking) and turned on the engines.”

    Wouldn’t be the first time they forgot that the Earth rotates in space., but three hours does seem suspicious. Once before a Soyuz escape system fired after the launch was aborted, after the Earth had rotated beyond the “off-course” tolerance for the escape system, about 17 degrees..

    And those “short-term software failures” are the worst kind, because they often occur in the highly-dynamic software module located between the ears.

  • Col Beausabre

    “So, was it human error? Or was it the software programming? Or both?”

    Either way, Bob, it was human error. The software didn’t write and test itself.

  • Chris Lopes

    “The software didn’t write and test itself.”

    Might have been one of those self-aware algorithms our tech-lords like to worship.

  • Col Beausabre

    Chris, But who wrote the algorithm? Even if it was a chain of them, a human wrote the flawed basic one that started the chain

  • JhonB

    I am surprised they did not blame the USA.

  • wayne

    Good stuff.

    Rick and Morty
    “What Is My Purpose?”

  • Edward

    Robert pointed to a cause for concern: “neither of which appears to have involved any real investigation.

    Solovyov is shooting off his mouth on speculations in a cavalier way that makes me wonder whether they are taking this seriously or are just going to pretend that it is a one-off event that will never happen again. If they think the latter, then we can see why they are having such a difficult time getting their hardware to behave properly. To have quality control, you have to control the quality. This was very poor quality hardware and operations, and now the Russians are saying that the software and personnel professionalism are low quality, too.

    It is one thing to joke about Russia’s quality problems and their cavalier attitude toward them ( ) but it is another when those problems adversely affect hundred billion dollar space stations.

    Roscosmos is making Boeing management look good.

  • Jeff Wright

    Well, they have more floor space now. A fat cargo dragon with lots of fuel can shove ISS farther up if need be right?

  • Jay

    Who left the TORU on? They switched over from KURS to TORU right before docking. Did someone bump the control?

    I know that telemetry is transmitted to the ground, but is there a record of commands and operations done on the Russian side? I hate to use the term “black box flight recorder”, but do the Russians have that for their systems (we call it an Event Recorder)? I hope to hell so.

  • Chris Lopes

    @Col Beausabre

    Of course the computer error is ultimately of human origin. My point was that (ironically enough) the people who are supposed to know better, seem to have far more faith in lines of code than experience would warrant. Back in the day, we knew these machines (and their programming) were as flawed as the humans who created them. These days they are the tin gods of a new religion.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Jeff Wright, it’s my understanding that Dragon is not capable of boosting the ISS, but others are, including the StarLiner! Apparently the forward-facing main thrusters of the Dragon preclude this use, as the thrust would be directed against the ISS itself.

  • pzatchok

    As for the Dragon not being able to boost the ISS.

    The Russians do not use the capsule for this. They use the attached life support module. So why couldn’t the Dragon do the same?

    Are they saying that the Dragon and the US docking ports are not strong enough to do it or that they were not originally designed for it?

    Russia does not have the base tech manufacturing economy to keep a fully operational and ever evolving space program running.
    They have used the same Soyuz and Progress capsules for the last 40 years and only updated them at NASA’s insistence and financing. The Soyuz could not even fit an astronaut over 5 foot 6 inches until NASA financed the alteration so Americans could fit. We even had to give them the tech to reduce the size and weight of internal components so a third person would fit.

  • John

    If you think stress cracks were a problem, try having multiple thrusters fight each other to maintain station attitude.

    No idea if the incident caused any damage, but I wonder.

  • mkent

    The Russians do not use the capsule for this. They use the attached life support module.

    Neither the Life Support Modules nor the Universal Docking Module they were to attach to ever made orbit. I don’t think they were even built. The Russians usually use a Progress capsule docked to the Service Module aft port for orbital reboost in order to save wear and tear on the Service Module itself. Only when no Progress capsule is docked there will they use the Service Module engines.

    Are they saying that the Dragon and the US docking ports are not strong enough to do it or that they were not originally designed for it?

    I don’t know about the Dragon, but the USOS docking ports can handle the load just fine, as evidenced by the fact that NASA intends to use Starliner for occasional orbital reboost.

  • Jay

    The visiting shuttles did boost the station using the RSC engines, like mkent wrote, the U.S. docking ports can take it. I believe there were some boosts provided by Cygnus when it was docked on the nadir port.

  • David Eastman

    I recall reading an article not long ago the Cygnus was doing a reboost to certify/demonstrate that it had that capability. I’ve been told that the ESA ATV has performed reboosts. I’m not sure about the Japanese cargo delivery ship. As has been mentioned, Starliner is planned to have the capability. Dragon lacks the capability, but I’m not sure if it’s purely technical, or if SpaceX has just not gone to the effort to certify that capability. I suspect it’s some of both. Based on past performance, I could see the Russians getting very sticky about giving SpaceX that certification.

  • Jay

    Wow, take a look at the article over at

    The quote that gets me”…that Nauka was not only firing its thrusters, but that it was trying to actually pull away from the space station that it had just docked with.” The station was moved more than 45 degrees.

  • Edward

    Scott Manley visualizes the problem that occurred. (7 minutes)

    Although this is a different rotational axis than I had thought, the ends of the solar arrays would have experienced G forces about as I had calculated in another thread (less than 1/1000th G):

    For these solar arrays, the real forces would have come from the increase and decrease in rotation rates. Again, this was probably small, but some amount of force would have been experienced by the solar array mount points.

    The ISS is occasionally reoriented, as it was for the docking of Nauka, but Manley did not tell us how fast ISS rotates, or the rate of increase in the rotation rates, when they make these maneuvers. NASA undoubtedly can easily figure out the theoretical stresses on the solar arrays and other important connections, but it would be interesting to know what these are for both normal rotations and for this “out of control” rotation.

  • pzatchok

    I bet Space X could do the job but just has not gone through the effort.

    Remember when Russia cried about Space X wanting to use robotic docking like they do and instead they made Space X dock using the arm?

    They were afraid Space x would bump into the station a little to hard.

    Well how about now? they are lucky they didn’t rip the station apart.
    I bet those pressure doors slammed shut pretty quick. Along with all the passengers back sides.

  • Edward linked to a video analyzing the situation (easier if you visualize the graph as a tube), but also mentions quarternions. Spent an hour on the Wikipedia page. A very useful tool. Thanks!

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