January 23, 2006

Russia Delays Launch of Next Space Station Crew

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- NASA's first paid ride to the International Space Station will be delayed eight days due to problems preparing the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for launch, Russian and U.S. officials said on Monday.

Launch of the 13th live-aboard space station crew was rescheduled from March 22 to March 30, said NASA spokesman James Hartsfield with the Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA is paying Russia to transport astronauts to the space station after the grounding of the shuttle fleet.

The delay was not expected to impact operations aboard the orbital outpost, which currently is overseen by American commander Bill McArthur and Russian flight engineer Valery Tokarev. The men have been aboard the station since October 2005.

Vyacheslav Davidenko, a spokesman with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, said several devices in the Soyuz control system had malfunctioned and had to be replaced, according the Russian news service Tass.

The launch delay will postpone McArthur and Tokarev's homecoming until April 9. The men will be replaced by cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, the commander, and NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams, the flight engineer.

A Brazilian astronaut, Air Force Lt. Col. Marcos Pontes, also was expected to be launched with the new crew. His stay aboard the station, however, will last just eight days and he will return to Earth with McArthur and Tokarev aboard a Soyuz capsule that has been serving as the station's lifeboat.

NASA hopes to add a third live-aboard member to the station's two-person crews with the launch of its next space shuttle flight, targeted for May.

Space station managers reduced the number of crew members from three to two following the 2003 Columbia accident and the subsequent grounding of the shuttle fleet.

Without shuttle transport, the outpost has been dependent on smaller Russian ships for deliveries of crew and cargo, prompting managers to remove a crew member to save on supplies.

During the hiatus in shuttle flights, NASA's agreement with Russia to provide crew transport expired, leaving the United States in the awkward position of having to revise a weapons proliferation law that banned direct U.S. purchase of Russian space hardware and services.

The restriction was passed due to concerns that Russia was helping Iran develop nuclear and missile-delivery systems. Faced with the choice of abandoning the half-built outpost or exempting NASA from the ban, legislators last year agreed to allow NASA to buy space transportation from Russia.

The first purchase will be for the launch of Williams aboard the March Soyuz and a ride home for McArthur in April. NASA has said it will pay Russia $43.8 million for those flights and some training for future crews.

Additional Soyuz rides will cost the U.S. space agency $21.8 million per astronaut.