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Russia targets Dec 3 for first manned ISS launch since accident

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Russia suspended all launches after the accident on October 11, unprecedented for Russia’s post-Soviet manned launches, that saw the rocket fail minutes after blast-off

Russia hopes to launch three crew for the International Space Station on December 3, the first manned blast-off since an accident this month, the Roscosmos space agency said Wednesday.

Russia, the only country able to ferry astronauts to the orbiting science lab, suspended all launches after a Soyuz rocket failed on October 11 just minutes after blast-off — the first such incident in the history of post-Soviet space travel.

Roscosmos executive director Sergei Krikalyov told the RIA Novosti state news agency: “The industry is now making significant efforts to move forward the launch to December 3.”

On the rocket destined for the ISS will be Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, and NASA’s Anne McClain.

The trio had originally been scheduled to blast off on December 20, but had their trip brought forward after the failed October 11 launch with Russia’s Aleksey Ovchinin and Nick Hague of NASA on board.

Ovchinin and Hague returned safely back to Earth in their capsule, and are likely get their chance to go to the space station in the spring, Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin has said.

Krikalyov said the astronauts currently on the ISS — Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency, NASA’s Serena Aunon-Chancellor, and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos — are expected back on Earth “around December 20.”

They had initially been scheduled to land on December 13 after their stint on the ISS, a joint project of the space agencies of America, Europe, Russia, Japan and Canada.

Meanwhile, an unmanned Progress cargo ship will blast off to the ISS on November 16 after its launch was postponed from October 30 due to the accident investigation, Krikalyov said.

– Sensor malfunction –

In the first official report on the cause of the accident, Roscosmos said a sensor that indicated the separation of the first two stages of the rocket malfunctioned.

The Soyuz carrier rocket taking up the astronauts has three stages, or segments. The first stage with four boosters is used to blast the rocket into the sky, before falling back to Earth as the second and third stages continue the journey.

“The reason found by the commission (investigating the accident) was the abnormal operation of a sensor that signals the separation of the first and second stages,” Krikalyov said at a space industry event in Moscow.

The malfunction led to one of the four boosters on the first stage failing to detach correctly and colliding with a fuel tank of the second stage, which exploded.

– Blow to image –

The accident was the first involving a manned launch since the Soviet era and delivered another blow to the image of Russia’s space programme after embarrassing losses of satellites and of an unmanned cargo ship in 2015.

Russia has opened a criminal probe into a possible breach of safety rules in construction.

Roscosmos director Rogozin, a former deputy prime minister and nationalist politician, was shown dressing down space industry officials in a video released by RIA Novosti Wednesday.

“Listen guys, you can’t work like this,” Rogozin says in the footage, which an official said was shot last week at a meeting to discuss problems with Soyuz rockets. The director threatened to withhold bonus payments.

Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov also criticised the space sector Wednesday for “very high” overheads and having “very many bosses”.

Roscosmos is due to hold a press conference Thursday to further detail the findings of the accident probe.

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