An Aborted Launch Brings Space Station Questions

7:37 minutes

Soyuz rocket taking off right before accident
The Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft is launched with Expedition 57 Flight Engineer Nick Hague of NASA and Flight Engineer Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. During the Soyuz spacecraft’s climb to orbit, an anomaly occurred, resulting in an abort downrange. The crew was quickly recovered and is in good condition. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Thursday morning, two astronauts en route to the International Space Station had to abort their launch after a booster rocket malfunctioned. NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin  made an emergency ‘ballistic descent’ back to Earth, landing safely.  

With Russian Soyuz capsules currently the only way for humans to reach the ISS, the likely investigation into the failure puts into question the upcoming schedule for crews on the space station. Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science, joins Ira with the latest on the launch.

Plus: Last Friday, Hubble entered ‘safe mode,’ a stable stand-by condition, after a gyroscope used in aiming and steadying the telescope failed and a replacement gyro didn’t perform properly when it was brought on-line.  Engineers are trying to diagnose the problem with the bulky replacement gyro. However, they say even if the replacement part continues to misbehave, the telescope should be able to resume science operations—just with less sky coverage at any given time.

We’ll also look at other selected short subjects in science, including an advance in mouse reproduction that produced offspring from two same-sex parents, and a font designed to aid in memory.

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Segment Guests

Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltman is author of Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex, and is the host of “The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.”

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, broadcasting today from the studios of KCLU on the campus of California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California. Later in the hour, an update on where world nations stand on curbing carbon emissions and avoiding a climate catastrophe.

But first, Thursday morning two astronauts en route to the International Space Station had to abort their launch after a booster rocket malfunction. They made an emergency descent back to Earth, and happy to report, both are doing well, both landing safely.

Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science, is here to bring us up to date on the launch and other selected subjects in science. Welcome back, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Anything more about what went wrong there?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So we know that about two minutes into the launch, there was some kind of booster failure. And they had to undergo what’s known as a ballistic landing, ballistic descent, which is so called because usually, they make a shallow angle as they come down to create a little bit of lift and take away some of the force on the astronauts during the landing. And this is where the rocket is really coming down more like a projectile.

And this has happened before, but only ever during landings, which, of course, appears a lot less dramatic, because they were supposed to come back down to the ground in the first place. So this is the first time they’ve ever had to make such an aborted landing during a launch. And the Russian Space Agency said immediately they would begin investigating. And so far, that’s all we know.

IRA FLATOW: Well, the good news about it is that it worked, right?


IRA FLATOW: They hadn’t done it before.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. And again, this is rare, but the kind of thing that astronauts train for all the time. So not something that happens a lot, but certainly one of the procedures that they are expected to occasionally encounter. So not something we want to have happen, but something that is certainly on the roster of things they have learned how to handle.

IRA FLATOW: But with this Soyuz capsule being the only way for humans to reach the International Space Station, isn’t this now a little bit of a problem? There’s no other way to get up there.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. So there are, I believe, three Soyuz missions planned that are now up in the air, because the Russian Space Agency, again, is undertaking this investigation. And so it’s possible that some of those will be put on hold. And even if they’re not, those two crew members who were counted on who are now on the ground instead of on ISS mean that there’s probably going to be a gap in staffing. We have three people on the space station right now, but they’re scheduled to come back in December.

Now, they could extend their stay a bit, but the Soyuz capsule they have up there that’s going to bring them home– I believe it can only stay up there through sometime in January. So that’s the longest they’ll be able to stay before coming back down. And that means that the space station probably will be uncrewed for some amount of time, which is something that we know should be possible. There are procedures in place for it, but I don’t believe it’s ever happened before.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. We’ll have to check on whether there are experiments up there that have to be put on hold or whatever.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Certainly, every astronaut who goes up has a fully packed schedule of scientific experiments. So NASA and the ESA and the Russian Space Agency are certainly going to have to at least rework schedules. And I know there are a few spacewalks that are now up in the air, so to speak.

IRA FLATOW: So to speak. And other bad space news– the Hubble has a problem this week too, right?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. But again, not a totally pessimistic message from NASA on that. So the Hubble is 20 years old and has done fantastic work and hopefully still has a lot of years left in it. But it certainly is not a new telescope, and the gyroscopes that we use to keep it in position while it looks out and takes all these amazing images of space for us– one of them is malfunctioning. It’s been glitching for about a year, and the backup that was expected to replace it didn’t quite act the way NASA wanted it to.

So the telescope basically went to sleep on the 5th of October, which is just to say it’s not collecting new images right now while NASA tries to workshop the problem. They are optimistic that they’re going to figure it out. They’re going to either get the gyroscope working or figure out a workaround for a way to position it. In the meantime, they expect it to continue working into the 2020s and overlap with its replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope.

But what’s interesting is that the big problem is that it was designed to be fixed during shuttle missions. And we don’t have a shuttle program anymore, so we’re running out of ways to fix the Hubble. So it does have an expiration date now.

IRA FLATOW: Details details. Let’s move on to some other news. And there’s a really interesting advance in reproductive medicine if you’re a mouse.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes. Great news for mice. The Chinese Academy of Science put out a paper showing that they were able to use embryonic stem cells and gene editing to create mice from same-sex parents, which has been done before, but they used a slightly different method this time. And while the mice with two dads only lived about 48 hours, the mice with two moms lived to adulthood and had babies of their own. So it’s just another small step forward in this growing body of work that’s teaching us how mammalian reproduction works and how we might be able to alter it.

IRA FLATOW: That is a question, though, about why it worked with the mice with two moms and not the two dads.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. It’s just considered more difficult to do it with two male cells. It comes down to, they’re not quite parallel. I hear it referred to a lot as, it’s like zipping up the chromosomes, and there are certain genes that, while both parents have them, they’re turned off in males and turned on in females, and vice versa. And so it’s about tweaking these sex chromosomes so that they zip together properly.

IRA FLATOW: Finally, there’s a study tip for students, a special kind of memory aid. Tell us about that.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So this really cool font called Sans Forgetia. And it’s actually designed to be slightly more difficult to read than most fonts. It’s kind of tilted and broken. And it’s all about this principle called desirable difficulty, which is a phenomenon in learning where you need something to be difficult enough that it holds your interest, that it doesn’t bore the person trying to learn the information, but not so hard that it keeps them from retaining it.

So the idea behind this fund is that it breaks these traditional design principles, so that it gets your attention and maybe helps you retain information a little bit better. So there’s no published paper on it yet, so we can’t quite say how well it works, but it is a really intriguing idea.

IRA FLATOW: Always interesting to have you, Rachel.


IRA FLATOW: Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science.

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