On Thursday, 11 October 2018, Nick Hague and Алексей Овчинин (Alexey Ovchinin) blasted off from Kazakhstan on a routine launch to the International Space Station.
It's dangerous, but routine, more are less. Stuff a few humans into a capsule on the top of a Death Machine that turns sparks and liquid combustibles into fire and Δp, and it's completely normal. Right? It's like getting in your car and taking a trip to the deli, except that gas is $2.95M per gallon and you have to use a new car next time.
But this time it wasn't so routine. Somewhere somehow their rocket glitched and they had to abort on the uphill part of the launch.
I think it's interesting when rockets go bad (so long as any with human payloads don't produce casualties) because at Orbital I worked on flight termination systems (blow the rocket up when it goes bad) and launch abort systems (the rocket on top of the rocket that pulls the crew capsule away from a rocket when it goes bad). It's fascinating. Nominally, they're both systems you don't want to use. But when you have to use them you want them to work.
That's not completely relevant to this flight because it wasn't a termination or rocket-powered abort, but close enough. At 2:45 they jettison the launch abort system, at 3:20 you can hear the alarm go off when they drop the first stage. So when they aborted the mission on this flight, there was no launch abort system to rip them off the rocket with big g forces. Instead they separated the capsule from the top, then went up and then down like a lawn dart, to be retrieved somewhere in the steppes of Kazakhstan.
So much for all that. That wasn't even the point of this post, really.
A native Iowan but otherwise good person, Ben Brockert, said this:
If the Soyuz on station lands on schedule, the ISS will be uncrewed for the first time in nearly two decades. Question is: does that matter? Is it important that humans live continuously in space if you assume that their primary activity is just keeping humans alive in space?
— Ben Brockert (@wikkit) October 13, 2018
The questions stuck in my head.
ISS has been occupied since November 2000. The last pressurized module was added in 2011. If there was a glitch or an abandonment earlier, in the first decade, say, that would be a bigger deal. It would signify that perhaps the project couldn't be accomplished.
But the whole system worked. The thing speaks for itself. By whole system I don't just mean the design and fabrication of hardware, but also the transportation of modules to space, construction and integration, working with frenemies to do it, keeping the orbital supply chain going as new systems came online and old systems were put out to pasture. It was, and is, an incredible feat.
I didn't answer the questions. I think I should answer the questions.
#1: Does it matter? No.
#2: Is it important that humans live continuously in space if you assume that their primary activity is just keeping humans alive in space? No.
Caveat: Assuming the abandonment is temporary.
If the current occupants leave—and they will have to leave eventually, new ride or not, because the propellant stores on the backup Soyuz have a finite lifetime—and if the occasion of their leaving results in a retrenchment in the ISS program... and the Station is truly abandoned... and human spaceflight is abandoned, in the US as least, until name-your-billionaire starts running amusement flights, which will be at altitudes far below Station anyway... and we're just waiting for a commercial with entity one eye on the quarterly report to step up to the plate... The future doesn't look promising, as far as human spaceflight goes.
I don't know what the feeling that accompanies that thought is. I don't think it qualifies as sadness. Disappointment, maybe. A little bit of frustration. Growing up with an interest in spaceflight as a—goal? desire? wish? dream?—it leaves a hole in my heart to think that we could stop reaching Out There. I don't care that much about Station itself, but I do care about the futures that it implies, the futures in which humans take a step away from Earth, and a step, and a leap, and then go so far that we look back on our past selves as the slow and underperforming children we were.
Kurt Vonnegut has had an outsized influence on my life for someone I never met. I don't want to go into it here. But I do want to rip off a few lines from him, from Fates Worse Than Death. It seems appropriate enough:
If flying-saucer creatures or angels or whatever were to come here in a hundred years, say, and find us gone like the dinosaurs, what might be a good message for humanity to leave for them, maybe carved in great big letters on a Grand Canyon wall? Here is this old poop's suggestion: WE PROBABLY COULD HAVE SAVED OURSELVES, BUT WERE TOO DAMNED LAZY TO TRY VERY HARD...AND TOO DAMNED CHEAP.