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Soyuz launch
A Soyuz rocket carrying the next crew for the International Space Station lifts off from Baikonur on March 30. During a critical phase of the flight a communications blackout make work difficult for mission controllers. (credit: RSC Energia)

Behind the beautiful Soyuz launch: overcoming a communications emergency

Behind the scenes of the beautiful blastoff two weeks ago of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft with three men headed towards the International Space Station, a critical communications blackout hit Mission Control in Moscow. That emergency quickly passed without any harm to the mission or the crew.

And while the incident again raises the old issue of the bigger “blackout” of long-standing Russian reluctance to occasionally keep its American partners fully informed of potential problems, this new incident provides evidence that things really are getting better. Mission Control in Houston had been apprised of the problem in real time and received all the information it needed to make its own decisions.

Because of the communications problem “we worked in a fairly difficult regime, I would say,” said Vladimir Solovyev, the chief of Mission Control operations.

This is the story of a “space dog that didn’t bark”, of what might have been an international incident casting doubt on the efficacy of the international partnership. Had that happened, no doubt it would have been big news. So on balance, it’s only fair to pay some attention to how well it did work, while reminding ourselves of some outstanding issues that need further work.

Speaking to a Moscow television station shortly after launch, Vladimir Solovyev, the chief of Mission Control operations and himself a former cosmonaut, disclosed the technical issue. “Some problems with, shall we say, the control network arose, the ground control network,” he explained. “Several data transfer channels went down.”

Solovyov did not minimize the event, which according to Russian press accounts seemed to have occurred at the time the Soyuz was reaching orbit and separating from its booster rocket: “As a consequence we worked in a fairly difficult regime, I would say,” he admitted, but insisted that “nevertheless, we overcame these problems.” And he insisted the main thing was that “the launch was carried out normally, despite problems with getting telemetric information at the stage of placing the spacecraft in orbit.”

Communications during the first few minutes of a Soyuz flight are particularly critical since, unlike NASA with its space network of relay satellites that provide essentially continuous contact all around the planet, Russia must rely only on in-country ground tracking facilities. Its seagoing tracking ships were sold for scrap years ago, and a space-based relay system broke down in the mid-1990s and has been too expensive to repair since.

This means that after only twenty minutes in flight, the Soyuz passes beyond the range of radio stations, out over the Pacific Ocean—and stays out of touch until it circles around the Earth and approaches Russia from the west, an hour later. During that time, mission-critical events such as unfolding antenna booms and solar panels must occur without delay, and every minute is needed for Earth to verify success or to suggest alternatives if problems are detected.

Where was the failure?

The communications breakdown, Russian press reports later stated, had not been in either the Soyuz or in Mission Control’s computers at their facility north of Moscow. An old Molniya communications satellite, used to relay the data stream from one ground site to another, had malfunctioned. Operators in the satellite control center at Krasnoznamensk southwest of Moscow were soon able to reactivate the satellite link.

So Solovyov was particularly proud to tell reporters that his specialists from the ground space control service “restored communications in an emergency mode.” Although data from the spaceship was lost in Moscow (but not at all at the launch site, Baykonur) for about fifteen minutes (again, according to one Moscow press account), the television and voice transmissions were never interrupted. There was no mention of this on the air-to-ground communications link of the loss of telemetry, although the crew was asked to read down a lot of measurements from their control panels.

Back at the launch site, meanwhile, NASA associate administrator Rex Geveden was being interviewed by senior public affairs officer Rob Navias. “It was a great launch,” he said over a live transmission on NASA TV. “Launch was smooth, uneventful, the kind we like. It was great.”

“We knew of it as it was happening,” said NASA’s Kylie Clem. “We knew the systems and the vehicle were fine, and we knew that we had good voice communications.”

Geveden was just there as an official representative, not an operational worker, so his lack of awareness of the glitch is understandable. Russian journalists knew the Americans at the launch site were clueless: “NASA officials are usually located on the furthest platform from journalists,” noted Moscow TV newsman Dmitriy Kalenichenko in his own report. “Today there was an unusually large number of them. When they were looking at the screen they still didn’t know that Russian experts had run into problems.”

However, back in Houston, NASA’s Mission Control was monitoring the International Space Station and was following the launch based on direct contacts with their contacts in Moscow. Annette Hasbrook was Flight Director for the shift that included the Russian launch, and she later reported on what happened to NASA public affairs officer Kylie Clem.

“We knew of it as it was happening,” Clem told by telephone from Houston. “We knew the systems and the vehicle were fine, and we knew that we had good voice communications.” There was no impact on any mission responsibility for the US side.

Responding to further inquiries, Clem provided new (and unpublished anywhere else) details. These were obtained from a Houston-based group called the “Visiting Vehicles Office”, responsible for all spacecraft coming to the station. “They’re in direct communication with the HSG [Houston Support Group, a NASA team in Moscow] and MCC-M [Mission Control Center – Moscow],” Clem explained. “Of course MCC-M would have the official records, but we were kept informed usual, so here’s the information we have.”

According to the VVO, “the last telemetry confirmation VVO noted before the communications outage was the third stage separation at 02:39:05 GMT—that was the end of powered flight,” just at the point that Russian reports had indicated.

“We did not receive confirmation through telemetry for appendage deployment, which is expected about eight seconds after the third stage separation,” the account continued. “That means the outage occurred between 02:39:05 and 02:39:13.” NASA does not monitor Soyuz booster data so could not comment on the Russian reports about any problems with those links.

“The nominal LOS [loss of signal] for ascent was on time about 02:50 GMT. We had a confirmation report from the HSG on antenna deployment at 02:49 GMT and the crew reported all systems nominal at 02:50 GMT so all the systems were confirmed nominal prior to the planned LOS.” It still isn’t clear whether the confirmation of antenna boom deploy was based on resumed telemetry or on the crew reporting it over the voice links, but in either case the lost data period lasted about ten minutes.

Breaking a pattern of deliberate blackouts

Russian space problems haven’t always been so transparent to their space partners. Some of the most traumatic experiences during the Shuttle-Mir program in 1995–1998, when American astronauts spent months at a time aboard the Russian space station Mir, were the life-threatening emergencies that the Russians didn’t bother to tell their NASA colleagues about.

One NASA worker recalls coming to work one morning and being puzzled by the intense scurrying of Russian flight controllers, only to overhear conversations about a life-threatening onboard fire the night before.

Some of the most traumatic experiences during the Shuttle-Mir program in 1995–1998 were the life-threatening emergencies that the Russians didn’t bother to tell their NASA colleagues about.

NASA officials extracted promises from their Russian colleagues not to leave them in the dark like that again, but it took a few years to work out better interface procedures. They still weren’t fully in place even by the time of the launch of the first module of the International Space Station in November 1998, when the onboard command circuits of the Russian FGB module refused to function properly for most of the first day in space, all the while that American space officials in Moscow were celebrating its success with their Russian partners.

Following the loss of Columbia in February 2003, the three-man resident ISS crew had to use their docked Soyuz spacecraft to return to Earth three months later. Despite early indications that they were way off course, it took several hours to reach them, and information about the problem was slow in coming out. And a more alarming problem with partial cabin depressurization on a Soyuz landing last fall apparently was also not fully explained at the time (or later) to NASA even though an American astronaut had been on board.

So at the latest launch, it’s merely a minor embarrassment on the part of NASA official Geveden’s incorrect “happy talk” commentary, since the Americans who really needed the information had gotten it—and he wasn’t on that list. Nor was it really worth bothering anyone else at the launch viewing stand, including the wife of one of the crewmen, who was at the launch. Fatima Pontes, wife of the Brazilian astronaut on board, shed tears of joy as she talked with newsmen afterwards: “Everything worked —we’re happy,” she said.

By that time the men were safely in orbit, despite the communications problem, and that was more than adequate reason for happiness. And there is something about the maturing space partnership, also concerning communications, that also did work, and that is grounds for additional happiness. And once we learn what really happened with the cabin pressure loss on the last Soyuz landing, we’ll all be happier still.