Spaceflight, like every sector, is feeling effects from the spreading coronavirus pandemic, and that holds true in Russia as well, where manufacturing of its workhorse Soyuz rocket has halted, officials said.
One of those rockets, a Soyuz 2.1a booster, most recently flew on April 9 to carry three astronauts to the International Space Station in a launch that was essentially unaffected by the pandemic. The news of the pandemic’s impact on its production comes from an English-language transcript released on April 10 by Russia’s government of a call held by President Vladimir Putin and a group of space center leaders.
During that call, Putin cautioned against using the pandemic as a scapegoat for issues within the industry. “Clearly, the fact that we have to fight the coronavirus is forcing us to make adjustments in our country, the economy in general and Roscosmos specifically,” Putin said at the end of the public portion of the call, according to the transcript. “At the same time, I would like to warn you against the temptation to blame unresolved issues and loose ends — which are still in abundance — on the coronavirus.”
Russian space manufacturing has raised concerns since a small air leak on a Soyuz spacecraft docked to the space station in August 2018 and a failed Soyuz rocket launch in October 2018 sent two astronauts tumbling back to Earth during an emergency abort (they landed safely). Since then, all crewed launches have gone smoothly, and last week’s launch relied on a different model of the Soyuz 2 rocket than the version that failed.
But for now, Soyuz 2 production is on hold, Dmitry Baranov, general director of the Progress Rocket and Space Center where the rocket is built, said during the call. Baranov said that decision was made because 52 completed Soyuz 2 rockets are on hand at the facility and at launch sites worldwide. (Both the Russian space agency Roscosmos and the European company Arianespace launch Soyuz vehicles.) “Here, we have a certain degree of safety,” he said.
Other aspects of rocket work are continuing as usual, including maintenance and testing of completed Soyuz 2 rockets and production of the Soyuz 5, a heavy-lift launch vehicle planned to make its first flight in late 2022, Baranov said. The facility will also consider restoring the full workforce with protective measures in place sometime after next week, he said.
However, the coronavirus pandemic may also begin having more severe effects on launches, Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin said during the call.
Of 39 launches planned for the year, five have taken place and nine are “at risk,” Rogozin said, citing the pandemic and two related issues: the bankruptcy of satellite internet company OneWeb and the delay of the launch of the ExoMars mission, a joint project of Roscosmos and the European Space Agency (ESA).
“This problem is rather serious, Mr. President, because the spacecraft we were supposed to launch from our cosmodromes simply cannot arrive in Russia,” Rogozin said. “Roscosmos is perhaps the only space agency in the world today that continues working.” (NASA and ESA have both implemented coronavirus responses that do not entirely shut down the agencies but do strictly curtail on-site work, particularly for non-essential missions.)
As of today (April 13), Russia has reported more than 18,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. One of Roscosmos’ key launch sites, particularly for missions related to the space station, is located in Kazakhstan, which has reported nearly 1,000 cases. Arianespace launches Soyuz rockets from French Guiana, which has reported 86 confirmed cases.