A Russian Soyuz rocket launch failed en route to the International Space Station on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. An American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut are safe.
The race is on to launch commercial space flights, but an emergency landing Thursday, after the failure of a rocket on a launch to the International Space Station, renews a longstanding concern about blasting off and hurtling through the atmosphere: safety.
The high-profile malfunction, combined with the release of a biographical movie starring Ryan Gosling as real-life astronaut Neil Armstrong, raised both excitement and concerns about the potential of more civilian space travel.
“Bottom line on this story is access to space is dangerous and will be for the foreseeable future,” said Lennard Fisk, the Thomas M. Donahue distinguished university professor of space science at the University of Michigan. “The Russians have been having some launch troubles recently, and this is a concern because they are our only means currently to get humans to the ISS.”
In March, Drew Feustel of Lake Orion also blasted off to the space station in a Russian spacecraft.
Still, surveys have shown that Americans are optimistic about space exploration and travel. A 2010 poll showed most Americans believe ordinary folks will be able to travel in space by 2050.
“There is always that risk something can happen,” said Morgan Kollin of Troy, who grew up seeking to be among the stars and still hopes to be able to do that. “But, if you are looking at the possibilities you have to think there are going to be more than traditional astronauts going up, soon.”
On Thursday, Nick Hague, NASA’s astronaut, and Alexei Ovchinin, of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, made it back to Earth.
NASA said it plans to investigate what went wrong.
Hague and Ovchinin were able to get off the space capsule, landing east of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, news organizations reported. They were taken to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center outside of Moscow.
The rocket malfunction highlighted the grave risks of space travel even as enterprises headed by billionaires — Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin — compete to take paying customers into the heavens.
Thursday’s failed mission also surfaced memories of other problems in space and raised concerns for public policymakers about how to ensure future space travel safety.
President Donald Trump, who has outlined plans to create a Space Force by 2020, signed a memo in May that was aimed at curbing federal regulation over activities by private firms that want to engage in space and open the door to more space commercialization.
Beneficiaries of a space travel industry would include U-M, which has graduated more than 6,000 aerospace engineers since it started its program more than a century ago. The university boasts that it has the nation’s oldest aerospace program.
Moreover, more than a half-dozen U-M graduates have become NASA astronauts, including the entire crew of Apollo 15 — David Scott, James Irwin and Alfred Worden — and Ed White, the first American to walk in space, but who died in a fire during Apollo 1 preparations.
Other space tragedies include the malfunction of booster O-rings during the 1986 launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. All the astronauts aboard, including civilian teacher Christa McAuliffe, died. In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
Even in the “First Man” film, which is about the first successful mission to the moon, a film critic who got an early look at the movie noted that it “makes space travel look like both the coolest and the most terrifying thing ever,” with scenes of flying at hypersonic speeds with blackout-inducing G-forces.
Yet, to space-travel enthusiasts like Kollin — who love sci-fi shows like “Star Trek” and space novels by Andy Weir — a sense of danger is part of the adventure.
Kollin, 38, said going to space would be an opportunity of a lifetime and almost nothing could deter him.
“I was never able to actually pursue sciences to become a proper astronaut,” he said. “Had I been able to go to space camp or something like that, I may have had the drive to do that. But, as that’s not an opportunity I got, all I can do is dream.”
Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.