Science & Astronomy
26. March 2014

Last year I wrote about the new, faster and more comfortable launch approach the Soyuz spaceships have been taking since the end of 2012 to reach the International Space Station, which just takes six hours instead of almost two days as before. Last night, in a picture-perfect night launch, three astronauts, Aleksandr Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev from Roscosmos and Steven R. Swanson from NASA went up from Baikonur and originally were again scheduled to arrive only six hours later, but this time there was a slight navigation problem which prompted the onboard computer to break off the final approach. Instead, the Soyuz will now take the old 34-orbit journey, which unfortunately takes about two days, but is actually just a completely normal procedure.

The media is, of course, really freaking out about this, especially here in Germany because the German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst is going up with the next flight in May. Headlines like “Serious computer glitch prevents astronauts from reaching ISS” or “Space docking maneuver failed” are making the rounds, but as usual Spiegel Online has the best fearmongering going with “Flight to the ISS: Russians and Americans stuck in space”. No, the docking didn’t fail and the final approach also didn’t fail because the flight computer didn’t even attempt to do it. What apparently went wrong was that the last burn before the final one resulted in a slightly wrong orbit, which is not surprising because the faster approach requires much more precision than the standard, long flight. The crew is okay, they have enough provisions to last even longer than the two days it takes them to reach now and while this is certainly uncomfortable, it was actually completely normal until the end of 2012. And the engine is working and nobody is “stuck” – they’re actually flying right now and performing regular burns to sneak up on the ISS in the old-fashioned way.

I shouldn’t even complain about this, because it’s always the same each time something out of the ordinary happens during these launches – if everything goes according to plan, the media basically just ignores it, but if there’s only the slightest problem everybody jumps on it like a bloodhound. What I especially dislike about the current reporting is that many journalists want to make this all about politics because of the Ukraine and Crimea tensions. Do the Russian astronauts even talk with the Americans anymore? Are the Americans stranded on the ISS because Russia won’t let them use their Soyuz capsules anymore? These are only some of the outrageous questions that are asked and often very inaccurately answered. What many people don’t realize is that the daily operations of the space station and the flights up to it are largely independent of any short-term political decisions – even Roscosmos is not as close to the Kremlin as you might think. There are scientists and engineers at work, not politicians and long-term contracts like NASA has with Roscosmos to buy seats on the Soyuz cannot be cancelled just like that.

The bottom line is, in the words of Douglas Adams, Don’t Panic. A minor problem with the flight computer means that the astronauts will arrive a little later on the station. If not and something more serious happens, I stand corrected – but the chance of this happening are astronomically small.

Because this article has turned out to be longer than originally intended, I’ll write another one with a little breakdown who is actually up on the space station, who will be coming and who will be going for tomorrow when the Astronauts actually arrive.

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