October 29, 2011

Progress Launch Scheduled for Sunday Morning

A Russian freighter bound for the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled to launch early Sunday morning, marking that country's first scheduled flight since they were postponed win the wake of a failed liftoff attempt on August 24.

According to Irene Klotz of Reuters, the Roscosmos Progress cargo ship is scheduled to depart from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 6:11 a.m. Eastern time.

It was a similar vessel that suffered an upper-stage rocket failure previously, and as the freighter uses a motor that is "nearly identical" to those used in the Soyuz rockets that transport astronauts and cosmonauts to the ISS, the station has been forced to operate at half-strength (with just a three-person crew) for what Klotz refers to as "an extended period of time."

"The Russians said they had traced the cause (of the accident) to possible debris and clogging in the fuel supply line," NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries told Reuters on Friday. "They have done additional inspections and testing that they told us about to ensure it's ready to go."

"Things happen during launches. They are very dramatic and they get everyone's attention," added NASA astronaut Mark Polansky, the U.S. space administration's director of operations in Russia. "What is important is to say, 'OK, there is a problem' and make sure it is fully analyzed and we truly understand what the real root cause is."

If Sunday's scheduled launch is completed without issue, a new team of astronauts would depart for the space station on November 13 and arrive their two days later. That would place their arrival six days before the current three-person crew is set to leave for Earth, with their replacements departing for the ISS sometime between December 21 and December 26.

"It's going to be a fast handover, but they've been making preparations," including creating training videos, Humphries told Klotz. "In general, they've been doing what they can to document the location of systems and items that crew is going to need."

However, if the Progress launch fails, there is a good likelihood that no replacements will arrive before the scheduled departure of the crew currently on board. If that happens, it would mark the first time since November 2, 2000 that the ISS would have been left unmanned, Reuters reports.

The Roscosmos Soyuz rockets are currently the only means of transporting astronauts and cosmonauts to the space station, as NASA terminated their space shuttle program over the summer. According to Klotz, U.S. space officials pay their Russian colleagues approximately $350 million annually for the service, though NASA is attempting to secure additional funding to help the development of private-sector spacecraft from the likes of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.

"The recent Soyuz failure reminds us that the very existence of the space station is now in jeopardy," George Sowers, vice president of business development for United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, told members of Congress during a Wednesday hearing discussing NASA's Commercial Crew Program, Reuters reported. "We're reliant on a single, fragile lifeline that we have little insight into or control over."


Image Caption: Russian Progress spacecraft docking with the International Space Station (Credit: NASA)


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