Station astronauts hopeful Soyuz problem resolved soon

CBS News

An American astronaut aboard the International Space Station said Tuesday the recent failure of a Russian Soyuz rocket, the same type booster used to launch crews to the lab complex, was a "big deal" that could, in a worst-case scenario, force NASA and its partners to briefly abandon ship later this fall.

Space station flight engineers Ronald Garan (left) and Mike Fossum (right) say they are not overly concerned about a recent Russian rocket failure. (Photo: NASA)
But flight engineer Mike Fossum said the more likely scenario is an extended period with a reduced crew of three while Russian investigators find and fix the problem that caused a premature engine shutdown during launch of an unmanned Progress supply ship Aug. 24.

Outgoing Expedition 28 commander Andre Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev and NASA flight engineer Ronald Garan, launched April 4 aboard the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft, are scheduled to return to Earth Sept. 16, one week later than planned. Landing in Kazakhstan is expected around 12:01 a.m. EDT (GMT-4).

Their replacements -- Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoly Ivanishin and NASA flight engineer Dan Burbank -- had been scheduled for launch aboard the Soyuz TMA-22 ferry craft on Sept. 22. But that flight now is on hold until Russian engineers figure out what caused the engine failure that doomed the Progress cargo ship and the 2.9 tons of space station supplies and equipment it was carrying.

Until then, the sprawling 900,000-pound lab complex will be staffed by Expedition 29 commander Michael Fossum, Sergei Volkov and Satoshi Furukawa, launched June 7 aboard the Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft.

"We're ready to take over," Fossum told reporters Tuesday. "I have no concerns at all. The care and feeding of the station's going to take a higher percentage of our time than it does right now with spreading that work amongst two people, Satoshi Furukawa and myself, instead of three for the (U.S.-Japanese-European) part of the station for which we are responsible. But we're working at a really good pace. No worries."

As it now stands, Fossum, Furukawa and Volkov will return to Earth on schedule Nov. 17, or possibly a few days later depending on when Burbank, Shkaplerov and Ivanishin are able to take off. Either way, Burbank and his crewmates will only have a few weeks to learn the intricacies of space station operations from the departing veterans.

Station crews prefer a longer "handover," but Fossum said he and his two Soyuz TMA-02M crewmates must come home in mid November to ensure a daylight landing in Kazakhstan.

"Right now, the current plans are for us to go home on time," Fossum said. "If things hold, the tentative plans, and they're very tentative at this point, are for the next crew to launch on about Nov. 2. But the investigation is still ongoing for what happened with the Soyuz booster. The whole path from here to launching humans, there's a number of steps along the way, finding the problem, fixing the problem, having one or two test launches ... before we put people on it. There are a lot of things that have to stack up to make that happen."

If that scenario plays out, three fresh crew members -- Oleg Kononenko, Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers -- would launch aboard the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft in early December to boost the lab's crew back to six. But all of that assumes the Russians resume manned Soyuz flights before Fossum's crew departs in mid November.

Asked how seriously he viewed the possibility of "demanning" the space station, Fossum said "it's a complicated thing. When you've got a problem with a rocket where it stops functioning in flight, it shuts down, that's a big deal."

"There's not a fundamental design flaw with the rocket, so what has changed? That's the first thing you look for, was it a hardware change, a component change or was it a process change?You hope to find something in those arenas, that's where you usually do find it. If those things don't pop out, though, then you start looking the harder things and that gets to be a lot muddier and harder to solve in the weeks that we have ... before it's my time to go home.

"And so, the possibility's there (for demanning) and there are a lot of details we have to work out before we get there. And that's why the teams on the ground are pushing hard to come up with plans. Again, the ones I think we're going to use are the ones where it's a short handover, how do you train people to do all the hands-on stuff that we do in a short amount of time? You have to start working right now, to say 'what if.'"

Space station engineers are developing worst-case plans for briefly shutting down the station if the Soyuz failure investigation takes longer than expected. Fossum said those plans likely would include closing hatches between modules and reconfiguring cooling and air circulation "because they just don't need to be moving air around the station. That way, if we had a small leak somewhere, it wouldn't depressurize the whole stack."

But the station crew hopes it won't come to that.

"It's a source of pride, the fact that we've kept crews up here continuously for over 10-and-a-half years, maybe it's closer to 11 years now," Fossum said. "I think it's important in many ways. The space station does require some care and feeding. It's important for us to be here if we possibly can. As events unfold, if that's not possible, and we have to shut it down for a little while, we're going to do our best to leave it in the best possible condition to make it through that downtime and have it prepared for the next crew to open the doors, turn on the lights and come on board."

Russian engineers say the Progress/Soyuz-U third stage malfunction five minutes and 20 seconds after liftoff Aug. 24 apparently involved a gas generator used to drive a turbo-pump that feeds propellant to the combustion chamber. No other details were provided and it's not yet known what sort of fix might be needed.

Assuming the gas generator was, in fact, the culprit and assuming no major redesign or repair work is necessary, Russian space managers hope to press ahead with two already-planned unmanned flights to make sure the system is operating normally before launching Shkaplerov, Ivanishin and Burbank aboard the Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft around the end of October or early November.