Manned flights to/from space station face delays in wake of Progress failure

CBS News

The failure of an unmanned Russian Soyuz booster during launch last week has thrown a wrench into International Space Station operations, with upcoming fights to and from the lab complex facing delays that likely will result in extended operations with a reduced crew of three, a senior NASA manager said Monday. If the rocket problem is not resolved in time to resume crewed Soyuz launchings by mid November, station managers could be forced to temporarily unman the huge complex.

NASA space station Program Manager Mike Suffredini told reporters Monday upcoming flights to and from the International Space Station likely will be delayed in the wake of a Russian rocket failure last week. (Photo: NASA TV)
While the space station can be operated from the ground without a crew on board, engineers hope it won't come to that because of the threat of failures that might require hands-on human intervention.

"We prefer not to operate in that condition without crew on board for an extended period of time just to make sure we don't end up in that situation," said Mike Suffredini, the space station program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "But assuming the systems keep operating, we can command the vehicle from the ground and operate it fine and remain on orbit indefinitely."

During launch of an unmanned Progress supply capsule last Wednesday atop a Soyuz booster, a sudden loss of pressure downstream of a turbo-pump in the third-stage engine resulted in a computer-commanded shutdown five minutes and 20 seconds after liftoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Progress capsule, loaded with 2.9 tons of supplies and equipment bound for the space station, never separated from the third stage and crashed in the remote Altai region near the Russian border with Mongolia and China. The spacecraft is believed to have broken up before impact, but as of Monday morning, Suffredini said, Russian engineers had not yet located the wreckage.

The loss of supplies will not have a significant impact on station operations thanks to the July flight of the shuttle Atlantis and earlier unmanned resupply missions. The station has enough supplies on board to operate until next summer without any additional manned or unmanned launchings.

But the third stage of the Progress Soyuz is virtually identical to the upper stage of the Soyuz used to launch Russian manned missions and until the anomaly is resolved and modifications are made, manned flights to the space station are on hold.

At the time of the failure, the Russian manifest called for three of the station's six crew members -- Expedition 28 commander Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev and Ronald Garan -- to return to Earth Sept. 8 aboard the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft they rode into orbit on April 5. That would leave the space station in the hands of Expedition 29 commander Mike Fossum, Sergei Volkov and Satoshi Furukawa, who were launched June 7 aboard the Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft.

The Russians planned to launch three fresh crew members -- Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoly Ivanishin and NASA flight engineer Dan Burbank -- aboard the Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft on Sept. 22 to boost the lab crew back to six.

Another unmanned Progress was scheduled for launch Oct. 26. Fossum, Volkov and Furukawa planned to return to Earth Nov. 16, clearing the way for launch of three more crew members -- Oleg Kononenko, Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers -- aboard the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft on Nov. 30.

But given the Progress failure, Suffredini said Borisenko, Garan and Samokutyaev likely will delay their departure and remain aboard the space station for an additional week or so, returning to Earth around Sept. 16. NASA managers favored keeping the crew aloft until late October to maximize science operations and to keep two U.S. astronauts on board for any failures of NASA components that might require a spacewalk.

But daylight landing opportunities in Kazakhstan end around Sept. 19 and do not become available again until around Oct. 27. By that point, the crew's Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft will have been in orbit about 10 days beyond its certified 200-day limit.

For a daylight landing in October, "the Soyuz is right at the end of its stated life of 200 days," Suffredini said. "Our Russian colleagues are giving serious consideration to that. But I will tell you, in general, I think where we'll probably end up is bringing the crew home a little bit later in September as opposed to pushing the system for a late-October landing."

For his part, Garan told a reporter late last week that the crew will support whatever decision is made.

"Obviously, I would have mixed feelings" about an extension, he said. "I've been away from home for a long time, but a lot of people are away from home doing things that they believe in. But what it would afford me is an opportunity to continue to make the best use of the time up here, to have more time for the science that we're doing, more time for the outreach, more time to share the experience with as many people as we can on the ground. There is an upside and a downside, and whatever the decision is, I think it'll be the best for the program and we'll fully support it."

Launch of Shkaplerov, Ivanishin and Burbank will be delayed as well while Russian engineers evaluate the Progress failure. If possible, Russian planners would like to carry out two already-planned unmanned Soyuz fights before launching a crewed mission to make sure whatever fixes might be required will work properly.

A commercial Soyuz chartered by the European consortium Arianespace to launch six Globalstar mobile communications satellites is scheduled for take off around Oct. 8. And the Progress M-13M/45P vehicle is targeted for launch on Oct. 26. The Russians may move that flight up two weeks or so.

Under that scenario, Soyuz TMA-22, carrying Shkaplerov, Ivanishin and Burbank, could take off in early November, before the departure of Fossum, Volkov and Furukawa aboard the TMA-02M ferry craft Nov. 16. Assuming no problems, Kononenko, Pettit and Kuipers then could launch, in theory at least, in early December to boost the station crew back to six.

But daylight landing opportunities end around Nov. 23 and do not become available again until around Dec. 19. Given the landing constraints, and the need to get Fossum, Volkov and Furukawa home before their Soyuz TMA-22 capsule exceeds it certified orbital lifetime, Shkaplerov, Ivanishin and Burbank must take off by mid November. If not, station managers would be forced to consider the worst-case scenario of temporarily de-manning the lab complex.

"It's not a trivial thing," Suffredini said. "If you look at ... risk assessments, some of the numbers are not insignificant. There is a greater risk of losing the ISS when it is unmanned than if it were manned. That's why, when we made our decision after the Columbia accident to keep the station manned, that is exactly why, because the risk increase is not insignificant."

But NASA managers say they are confident the Russians will resolve the Progress/Soyuz anomaly in time to prevent that worst-case scenario from playing out.

Asked if the Progress failure would heighten criticism of the Obama administration's post-shuttle space policy and the near-term lack of an operational U.S. manned rocket system, Suffredini said flight safety, not concern about public relations, was the team's only concern.

"If you think about it, (the Progress failure) was sort of a gift," he said. "We have the logistics on board to recover from it. It's going to tell us about an anomaly before we put humans on a similar vehicle. So really, this is a great opportunity for us to learn about an anomaly, resolve the anomaly, without putting a crew at risk.

"Flying safely is much, much more important than anything else I can think about right this instant. I'm sure we'll have an opportunity to discuss any political implications if we spend a lot of time on the ground, but you know, we'll just have to deal with them because we're going to do what's the safest for the crew and the space station, which is a very big investment of our governments. Our job is to protect that investment, and that's exactly what we're going to do."