September 14, 2011
Manned Soyuz Launch Delayed Until November
Russia´s space agency (Roscosmos) said Tuesday that it is postponing the launch of its next manned Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) until November 12, only days before the remaining ISS astronauts are due to return to Earth.
The mission was already delayed once, moving back from September 22 to late October, due to the August 24 crash of the agency´s unmanned Progress cargo vessel after a Soyuz rocket suffered a malfunction.
That accident was Russia´s first in several decades for its Soyuz rockets, and raised concerns about safety of the Soyuz, which had already suffered a number of alarming setbacks this year.
With no space shuttles to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS anymore, the US relies solely on Russia´s Soyuz to do the job. But amid deep concerns over the recent crash, Russia said it is necessary to delay the launch further.
The delay makes the potential for an unmanned ISS very real -- and NASA could have seen it coming, Christopher C. Kraft, the former director of NASA´s Manned Spaceflight Center, told Fox News.
“You can't put your head in the sand about the fact that you're going to have failures,” he told Fox News. Failures are to be expected in spacecraft as old the Soyuz, said Kraft.
The Space Shuttle program was a crucial alternative, said Art Harman, director of The Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration. “The political and budgetary rush to scrap the shuttles was so strong that all the risks inherent in relying upon any single source, much less the Russian system in particular, were downplayed or ignored,” he told Fox News.
“They've got no prepared alternate landing site for routine use, which therefore forces home our crews in each case a month earlier than the Soyuz expiration dates alone would require. That's incredible negligence,” he added.
NASA believed Russia´s Soyuz craft would keep the ISS manned and supplied while the US commercial space industry worked to develop a means of replacing the shuttle. But with Russia suffering four spacecraft failures in the past ten months, NASA may be putting lives at risk by sending astronauts on Soyuz missions.
In December, a rocket carrying three communications satellites fell into the Pacific Ocean after failing to reach orbit. A military satellite was lost in February, and in mid-August the Express-AM4 telecommunications satellite, was lost.
“Many of the systemic weaknesses of the Soyuz system were not a big deal in the shuttle era. Yet now they indeed become of paramount concern to the survival of our $100 billion investment in America's space future,” Harman told Fox News.
Without the shuttle, and perhaps without Soyuz, the ISS may be in danger.
“Without the space shuttle, you leave yourself extremely vulnerable to losing the whole space station,” said Kraft. That has far greater implications than it sounds. For example, NASA has been promoting the privatization of space flight as a replacement of the space shuttle, he noted.
“Without the space station, there is no market for the commercial vehicles. Zero,” Kraft told Fox News.
The ISS has been continuously inhabited by astronauts for the past 11 years. NASA has insisted that last month´s accident will have no adverse influence on the crew of the station, because their existing supplies of food, water and oxygen are sufficient.
“That´s true,” said Kraft. But the question remains: “do they have the right equipment? And can they use if it they have to?”
He noted that extra-vehicular was often required to repair the station or add new parts. If the station is damaged, however, how would crew perform that operation? “If you've got a damaged space station and you couldn't do an EVA, the U.S. shuttle would have been the only other vehicle with an EVA capability,” he said.
By retiring the shuttle, we have effectively impacted the ability to perform that and other operations. “It was the best vehicle, best rocket ship, best launch vehicle we have ever built in this country. And with modernization, it could be the vehicle to use for the next 20 years,” he added.
But now, NASA will have to rely on Russia´s array of spacecraft until the commercial spacecraft industry delivers.
Roscosmos said in a statement that “the launch of the manned Soyuz spaceships (has been set for) November 12 and December 20 of this year.”
“The schedule has been put together taking into consideration the readiness of propulsion systems of third-stage rocket boosters,” said the statement, noting the move also took into account recommendations of industry officials.
The August 24 accident of the unmanned cargo ship marked the first Soyuz failure since launches began back in 1978. The crash prompted Russia to ground its manned spaceflight program until the cause of the accident was found. The incident has raised doubts about the reliability of Soviet-era technology.
But a spokesman for the Russian Space Mission Control said that resumption of manned and unmanned cargo launches indicate that there is no need to evacuate the space station.
“This means that the ISS will constantly operate in piloted mode, with astronauts onboard,” spokesman Valery Lyndin told the AFP news agency. “Crews will be changed as originally planned, only the schedule will be somewhat pushed back.”
Two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut are set to return home from the ISS on Friday and NASA had earlier raised the prospect of bringing the remaining crew home if the next manned mission was not sent up by mid-November.
There was no immediate reaction from NASA to Russia´s announcement, but Roscosmos said it was holding constant consultations with US space officials about upcoming missions.
NASA officials last week blamed the August 24 accident on a one-off production fault in the Soyuz rocket engine. Analysts have said the crash landing of the craft exposed a systemic lack of proper checks and a shortage of qualified staff. The accident was an embarrassing scenario for Roscosmos that followed three other failed launches since December 2010.
Image Caption: The International Space Station on 30 May 2011 as seen from the departing Space Shuttle Endeavour during STS-134. Credit: NASA
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