This morning a crewed Soyuz booster failed, causing the crew to return to Earth, as the capsule was not in orbit yet. With this being the second failure of a Soyuz rocket in two years (a Dec 2016 resupply also failed), it's likely the Soyuz will, at the very least, be grounded in the short term. In the long term, NASA may be forced to abandon the Soyuz altogether.

This raises the serious question of what will happen to the ISS now. There are no other approved methods of sending crew into space at present. SpaceX and Boeing are in the process of being certified to carry crewed rockets, but neither seems likely to be approved for at least another year (and, given the repeated delays in both programs, that is optimistic).

Is there anything NASA can do to accelerate these programs to keep crews going to the ISS? I know that there was discussion of crewing the first SLS launch. Could NASA just tell SpaceX to put a Dragon atop a Falcon Heavy and send them on their way?

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    "Could NASA just tell SpaceX to put a Dragon atop a Falcon Heavy and send them on their way?" I think you severely underestimate NASA's risk averse-ness. – Organic Marble Oct 11 at 13:09
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    No need for a Falcon Heavy. Dragon Crew is under active development and is almost ready. Falcon 9 is being man rated. Atlas V is being man rated. – geoffc Oct 11 at 13:12
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    Assuming the SLS/Orion ever flies, I'll bet you a cookie the first flight will not be crewed. – Organic Marble Oct 11 at 13:20
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    Not to mention the drill hole... – Magic Octopus Urn Oct 11 at 13:51
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    Given the huge number of successful Soyuz and Progress launches (=low failure rate) and the fact that the launch failure was combined with a successful crew escape, "NASA may be forced to abandon the Soyuz" is unlikely. – Hobbes Oct 11 at 14:10
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The answer appears to be no, for now. Ars Technica interviewed ISS operations manager Kenny Todd and asked him about it

[The crewed programs are] not ready yet, and Todd was in no great mood to talk about possibly accelerating the availability of SpaceX's Dragon or Boeing's Starliner on Thursday. "We're about eight hours into what was a pretty major anomaly here with this Russian vehicle," he said. "I can promise you we haven't thought too far out for what it means for the commercial crew program. I'm thinking maybe some of the CCP people might be thinking about it."

One possibility floated is accelerating the uncrewed demonstration flight of the Dragon back into late 2018 and flying an operational crew on that spacecraft in mid-2019. This is probably the soonest we could expect either of the commercial crew spacecraft to carry people into space, and even that might be a stretch given NASA's relatively risk-averse posture when it comes to human spaceflight.

So, at best, this might light a fire under the existing programs, but only if the Soyuz doesn't return to flight in short order. NASA does not appear to be willing to drive this, since they are risk averse when it comes to human crews. If anything, this puts them in an uncomfortable position of losing the ISS without a way to crew it, but wanting to take their time in certifying other programs.

  • To put it simply: there is a body of work remaining to complete before the crew vehicles can fly. To accelerate, you can do one of two things: pay people to work overtime to compress the completion schedule (diminishing returns, higher error rate), or you can simply not do some of the work (really not a good idea...). There's not really much else you can do. – Tristan Oct 15 at 22:40
  • @Tristan: Adding manpower is another bad idea to increase error rate and to delay completion. Adding man power to a late project makes it later, that is valid not only for software projects. – Uwe Oct 16 at 17:48
  • @Uwe Precisely. That's why I didn't even list it as an option :-) – Tristan Oct 17 at 18:14

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