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Technical issues with a new version of the venerable Soyuz spacecraft have also illustrated difficulties in disclosing information about those problems. (credit: NASA)

Soyuz landing tests new systems and old secrecy habits

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The launch of the upgraded “digital Soyuz” last October was a shakedown cruise for the new model manned spacecraft that will soon become the planet’s only vehicle transporting crews to the International Space Station (ISS) for years to come. As expected (even as hoped), some problems arose, and were responded to by Russian flight controllers.

The treatment of those problems, especially in how much was disclosed to Russia’s NASA customers (contractually such, on a cash basis—not bartering/swapping “partners” as earlier on ISS) and the general public, was another kind of “shakedown cruise” for the next five years or more of US dependence on Russian space capabilities and space candor. Here, too, problems have cropped out, and it’s not yet clear how they will ultimately be handled.

The treatment of those problems, especially in how much was disclosed to Russia’s NASA customers and the general public, was another kind of “shakedown cruise” for the next five years or more of US dependence on Russian space capabilities and space candor.

Within a few weeks of launch, a Russian press report addressed rumors of problems. Interfax reported “a host of emergencies” on board. It quoted an internal source as saying, “The pressure rose inside the spacecraft’s descent vehicle because of an oxygen leak before the launch, the switchboard [display] computer reloaded before docking, and the analog-digital converter [for the display panel] broke down during the autonomous flight [on the second day].” In hindsight, this report was entirely accurate, but was denied at the time by Moscow ”Mission Control” officials.

On November 3, the NASA “On-Orbit Status Report” for the International Space Station made passing reference to the Russian cosmonauts “troubleshooting of the failed Analog/Digital converter of the Soyuz Descent Module’s ‘Neptune’ console.” Kaleri was reviewing the panel’s data log “for more testing”, NASA reported, adding that, “preliminary results from the Russian specialists have indicated the problem is hardware related.”

Three months later there was one more brief mention that did not specify the “Neptune” panel. On February 2, the daily report stated: “Kaleri worked ~2 hrs in Soyuz TMA-01M/24S (#701, docked at MRM2), outfitting it with four M4294M Microamperemeter assemblies which he installed at instrument panel locations. Documentary photography was then taken and downlinked for a tagup with ground specialists.”

It was not until March 10, six days before the scheduled landing, that NASA mentioned it again. “Teams in Moscow and Houston are conducting final analyses of some tests being planned for the new-design Soyuz 24S immediately upon undocking,” the report revealed. The most critical test was required by the “on-orbit installation of new Microamperemeter rate measurement assemblies (‘ammeters’) by Alex Kaleri on February 2 in the Neptun-ME crew console in response to an instrumentation failure during ascent last year.”

NASA’s little-read report explained that if the test of the roll rate instruments were successful, the crew would have all four landing modes (two automatic and two manual), but any additional problem with the automated [guided] descent would compel selection of manual control. But, continued NASA, “if the rate gyros in the ammeter test are not operational then we will go into a ballistic descent.” This option results in landing several hundred miles short of the main recovery zone, where a skeleton force of rescue personnel are stationed.

That very same day (March 10), Russia’s Mission Control Center finally officially disclosed the upcoming test but pointedly continued to cover up the existence of the problem. According to the Interfax news agency, “systems of the modernized manned spaceship Soyuz-TMA-M will be tested next Wednesday before the return to the Earth, a source at the Russian mission control center told Interfax-AVN.”

“Russian crew commander Alexander Kaleri will test the motion control system after the undocking of the Soyuz-TMA-M from the ISS on March 16,” the press report continued. “The Soyuz-TMA-M is a spaceship of the new series, so it is necessary to check the operation of systems before landing,” an official was quoted as saying. The test was required merely because the vehicle was “new”—no hint of any actual malfunction or repair was mentioned.

Neither the Russian official statement nor NASA’s report addressed the second rumored failure, the “fail-open” of an oxygen pressure regulator inside the Soyuz command module shortly before launch in October. But a NASA safety presentation, for internal use only, had provided a full description of that scary event in January. No public disclosure was ever made, then or since.

That report was by Mark Uhran, Assistant Associate Administrator for ISS Operations, to the NASA Advisory Committee (NAC) Space Operations Committee. On page 31 (“Status of Soyuz Anomalies”) he described the event as follows:

Soyuz 24S Elevated Partial Pressure of Oxygen (PPO2)

During the Soyuz 24S (TMA-01M) pre-launch suit checks, increased total pressure and partial pressure of O2 was noted in the Soyuz. While the crew was seated in the Soyuz on the launch pad, approximately 2 hours prior to launch, they were asked to open the O2 supply valve per standard procedure. They reported a loud sound from the valve and a rapid pressure increase. The descent module compartment pressure rose to 933 mmHg and 335 mmHg ppO2 (35.9% PPO2). MCC-M instructed the crew to open the equalization valve (between the descent module and orbital module), and then to open the orbital module pressure relief valve - this vented both modules overboard since the equalization valve was open. The O2 supply valve was then cycled multiple times with no additional pressure spikes. Additional troubleshooting was performed while attached to the ISS and the crew cycled the O2 supply valve and again during the first test opening, O2 was released into the cabin. After a cycle of the valve, the system began operating nominally. MCC-Moscow recommended the crew open the valve only partway at first (allowing the pressure to settle for 10 seconds) before opening the valve to the full open position.

Status: Under investigation

Other internal NASA reports, and live commentary over NASA TV during landings of two other Soyuz missions in 2010, indicate the regulator failure has occurred multiple times. It appears to be a repeated fabrication flaw in the supplier’s factory.

The bigger issue isn’t just the problems with Neptune and the O2 regulator, but the problems with public disclosure of risks that American astronauts will be subjected to.

Prior to my obtaining this official NASA document, I had been privately advised about the incident and about a written report from astronaut Scott Kelly, who had been aboard the Soyuz. For obvious reasons I filed a FOIA request with NASA for the Kelly report—and was denied it.

On December 20, I was informed by the Johnson Space Center FOIA Liaison Officer that they had found an exemption in the law which allowed non-disclosure:

“It is my determination that the documents you requested are non-releasable,” the official wrote. “Documents with predecisional information have been withheld, which I have determined to be exempt from disclosure pursuant to FOIA exemption (b)(5). FOIA exemption (b)(5) authorizes the Agency to withhold from release, “inter-agency or Intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation” with NASA. The purpose and scope of this exemption may be drawn from expressions of legislative intent and from judicial interpretations. The House Report supports the exemption with the following statement:

“(A)dvice from staff assistant and the exchange of ideas among agency personnel would not be completely frank if they were forced to “operate in a fishbowl”. Moreover, a Government agency cannot always operate effectively if it is required to disclose documents or information which it has received or generated before it completes the process of awarding a contract or issuing an order, decision, or regulation. This clause is intended to exempt from disclosure this and other information and records wherever necessary… [H.R. Rep. No. 1497, 89th Cong., 2d Sess. 10 (1966)].

“Court decisions base this exemption on the grounds of protecting the internal decision making processes of government agencies. Accordingly, the courts have upheld the agencies’ privilege to withhold interagency and intra-agency documents that set forth matters of advice, opinion, recommendation, and deliberations comprising the governmental decision making process. The Supreme Court has made it clear that intra-agency documents which are inherent to the deliberative process fall within exemption (b)(5) of the FOIA. … The decision to withhold these records has been made only after careful consideration of both the public’s right to information and the impact that the release of the deliberative documents would have on the government’s decision process.”

It didn’t take long to determine that this excuse was preposterous. I received the following advisory from a legal specialist I consulted, who prefers to remain anonymous:

Obviously the FOIA rejection is not valid since the exemption referred to by NASA actually exempts only documents not available to civil discovery, see below. The court decisions referred to by [the official] were later reversed by the US Supreme Court in “FTC vs Grolier” and “Weber Aircraft”. The exemption is really intended only for documents and discussion prepared in preparation for litigation. See

(b)(5) EXEMPTION 5 Privileged Interagency or Intra-Agency Memoranda or Letters. This exemption protects “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums of letters which would not be available by law to a party litigation with the agency.” As such, it has been construed to “exempt those documents, and only those documents, normally privileged in the civil discovery context.”
 The Supreme Court’s decision last year in FTC v. Grolier Inc., suggested that those courts’ analysis was incorrect. In Grolier, the court noted that “[i]t makes little difference whether a privilege is absolute or qualified in determining how it translates into a discrete category of documents that Congress intended to exempt from disclosure under Exemption 5.” 103 S. Ct. at 2214. Even more pointedly, Justice Brennan’s concurrence observed that the “plain meaning of Exemption 5 is that the scope of the Exemption is coextensive with the scope of the discovery privileges it incorporates” and that “nothing in either FOIA or our decisions construing it authorizes us to define the coverage of the work-product doctrine under Exemption 5 differently from the definition of its coverage that would obtain under Rule 26(b)(3).” Id. at 2217.
 Less than a year later, Justice Stevens, writing for the entire Court in Weber Aircraft, removed any doubt that the Mink “factual-deliberative” distinction is not applicable to all privileges incorporated into Exemption 5, explaining that “the relevant portion of Mink merely states that otherwise nonprivileged factual material cannot be withheld under Exemption 5 merely because it appears on the same document as privileged material.” 104 S. Ct. at 1493 n.17 (emphasis added). Inasmuch as all attorney work-product is subject to a qualified privilege from civil discovery, it is entirely exempt from mandatory disclosure under Exemption 5. In sum, agency FOIA personnel should remember, especially when processing requests for factual material prepared in anticipation of litigation, that the holdings of the courts of appeals cited above (as well as that portion of the guidance found in FOIA Update, Summer 1983, at p. 6, citing the Mervin decision) do not accurately reflect the breadth of attorney-work product protection now available under the Supreme Court’s recent Exemption 5 decisions.

Leak of the other reports has largely made this FOIA action moot, so no appeal is pending. But it would still be nice to see the original Kelly memo—and other internal NASA discussion of the issue. High partial pressures of O2 aren’t just a structural integrity issue, they are a significant flammability issue at percentages above 40%.

The bigger issue isn’t just the problems with Neptune and the O2 regulator, but the problems with public disclosure of risks that American astronauts will be subjected to. Until a more transparent culture is put in place, there is no reason to have any confidence that the full extent of specific risks is being made known to the appropriate decision makers on the US side.