Following the recent failed launch of an unmanned vehicle in a three stage Soyuz rocket this past Wednesday, the International Space Station might become temporarily devoid of its crew by November, if NASA, who is in charge of the outpost, doesn’t deem the Russian spacecraft fit anymore to transport astronauts.
A Soyuz rocket crashed Wednesday minutes after lifting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, apparently after a malfunction caused the vehicle’s RD-0110 engine to turn off early during the Soyuz-U’s third-stage propulsion. The unmanned cargo vehicle crashed minutes later in Siberia, 1,000 miles east of the launch site in Kazakhstan. The Soyuz-U’s third stage is almost identical to equipment used on the Soyuz-FG booster that propels human crews into orbit, according to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.
This has been the second failed launch in a row for the Russian space agency, after a communications satellite launched Aug. 17 by a Proton rocket was stranded in the wrong orbit due to an anomaly with the mission’s Breeze M upper stage.
Fortunately enough, there haven’t been any reported human casulaties, but the mishap is responsible for raising a lot of eyebrows down at Houston, which is seriously considering whether or not the Soyuz rocket can still be considered as a viable considerate for sending astronauts to the space station.
“Logistically, we can support [operations] almost forever, but eventually if we don’t see the Soyuz spacecraft, we’ll probably going to unmanned ops before the end of the year,” said Michael Suffredini, NASA’s space station program manager in an interview Thursday, one day after Russia lost a Soyuz rocket with an automated Progress resupply ship bound for the space station.
But what other alternatives do they have left? Well, there aren’t any other alternatives. After the retirement of the space shuttle program, once with the last mission of its kind this July when Atlantis safely re-supplied the space station, the Soyuz spaceship is currently the only qualified ride to send humans into space left in the world.
The first crew scheduled to leave the station, comprised of Andrey Borisenko, Russian cosmonaut Alexander Samokutyaev and NASA flight engineer Ronald Garan, was set for a September 8 leave date, but that might be eventually pushed back to as late as October, in the wake of these recent events. A complete de-manning of the ISS might occur as soon as November, if the remaining crew – NASA flight engineer Michael Fossum, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa – will be sent home.
A board of investigation has been set-up by the Russian space agency to look into the causes of the failure and recommend corrective actions.
To leave the space station, the team uses a Soyuz TMA-02M return-vehicle currently docked with the outpost. The vehicle can remain there until December or January without a problem, however due to landing site difficulties which a harsh Khazakstan winter usually arises, an evacuation must be made before November. Landing in other locations other than Russian space is not an option.
The Russian Soyuz spacecraft is considered one of the most viable and versatile means of sending man into space, with only a few minor failures since it went into operation in 1978. In all likelihood, after the investigation is fully comprised and both parts come to an agreement, the Soyuz will launch a manned mission soon, albeit with a considerable delay. Otherwise, 11 years of uninterrupted manned presence on the International Space Station might come to an end.
We’ll just have to wait for the inquiries to finish and for the final call from authorities.