Had a crew launched on that doomed Soyuz last week, would they have died?


Enlarge / The Progress MS-04 cargo spaceship lifts off from Baikonur last week. (credit: TASS/Oleg Urusov)

On December 1 a Soyuz rocket carrying an uncrewed Progress spacecraft laden with 2.6 tons of food, fuel, and other supplies lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Following a normal launch, first-, and second-stage firings, things started to go wrong for Progress MS-04 at about six minutes into the flight.

The details are a bit sketchy, but according to Russian space journalist Anatoly Zak, the third stage was supposed to fire from five minutes after launch until almost nine minutes into the ascent. Instead of a nominal ride to orbit, however, mission controllers lost telemetry from the vehicle at about six minutes, and there was no confirmation of the Progress spacecraft separating from the rocket’s third stage. Around that time, a large explosion was observed in the sky over the Tuva Region of Russia, a remote area of southern Siberia, followed by reports of falling debris. Tanks and other debris associated with the rocket and spacecraft were later found on the ground.

The Progress spacecraft launched on an older Soyuz-U rocket, which is being phased out. Crewed launches now take place on a more modern Soyuz-FG rocket, but the two rockets share a common third stage. So it is conceivable that such an incident could occur with a human launch. Had this happened last week, would the crew have survived? The answer is maybe—with some luck.

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