Sunday, November 13, 2011

NASA Enters New Era of Soyuz Dependency

While the launching of Soyuz rocket, the workhorse of the Russian space program for several decades isn’t a particularly historic event, tomorrow’s scheduled launch marks the beginning of a new and perhaps not so illustrious chapter in U.S. manned space exploration.

The stakes are high for the future of the International Space Station (I.S.S.). With the station currently staffed by a crew of three who are slated to return to Earth later this month, the success of the Monday morning launch from Kazakhstan is critical. If the three-man relief crew of two Russian cosmonauts and NASA astronaut Daniel Burkbank fails to arrive by their departure date the station will be left unmanned for the first time in more than ten years.

The mission marks the dawn of a new era of dependency on the Russian rockets, as it’s the first trip by astronauts to orbit since the shuttle program ended in July. According to the New York Times: “Daniel C. Burbank, Anton N. Shkaplerov and Anatoly A. Ivanishin are scheduled to launch at 10:14 a.m. Monday — which is 11:14 p.m. Sunday Eastern time — from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The trip, which was supposed to take place in September, was postponed after the failure in August of a Russian unmanned cargo rocket.

NASA officials expressed confidence that their Russian counterparts had diagnosed and corrected the problem. “The Russian commission has talked to us and explained the basis for their analysis,” said William H. Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA’s human exploration and operations mission directorate. “They’ve done everything we would do to make sure everything is fine, and we’re ready to go launch.”
Russia has had a rough year in its space endeavors. The problem in August was that the third stage of the cargo rocket shut down early; instead of reaching orbit, the spacecraft arced into a Siberian forest. There have been two other mishaps. Earlier in August, the failure of an upper stage of a different Russian rocket put a communication satellite in a wrong orbit. And last week, a Russian probe that was supposed to explore a Martian moon got mired in low-Earth orbit after its engines failed to fire. The probe, the Phobos-Grunt, is being monitored by Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, which is trying to re-establish contact and set it on course, but the chances for success look slim.

The reliability of rockets has traditionally been a strength of the Russian space program, and the problems with three different rockets this year may indicate underlying issues, said Scott Pace, a former NASA official who now directs the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “I hope there are full and frank discussions going on” between NASA officials and their Russian colleagues, Dr. Pace said.

When the three men arrive at their destination on Wednesday, the space station will temporarily be back to its full complement of six crew members. But then the three crew members currently in orbit will return to Earth. Another Soyuz with three more crew members is scheduled to launch next month. “Once we have the December flight, we’re pretty much back on a regular schedule,” Mr. Gerstenmaier said. Much of the scientific research on the station is controlled and monitored on the ground, and the impact of the delays on research was “modest,” he said.

The problems also pushed back the launching schedule for Space Exploration Technologies Corporation of Hawthorne, Calif. A test flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which lifts a capsule called the Dragon, was supposed to take place in September, carrying hundreds of pounds of supplies to the space station. But now that mission will not happen until next year. If it succeeds, SpaceX will begin regular cargo runs to the station.


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