When NASA ended the Shuttle program that left only one method of getting people and goods to and from the International Space Station, namely the Russian Soyuz rocket topped with a Progress module, for cargo and a Soyuz module for people.
This could be a bit of a problem as the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has lost two payloads on launch this month alone. The first payload was a telecom satellite. The third stage of the Proton rocket shut down prematurely and left it in the wrong orbit.
The second happened today when Soyuz launch vehicle bound for the space station failed after only five minutes of flight time. Combined these two launch failures mean there is something serious going on in the nearly 50 year old Soyuz program.
If a manned launch had the first set of problems, an early shut down, that would not be catastrophic, after all an orbit is an orbit if you are in space craft that can return to Earth. However if the manned launch had crashed in the Siberian wilderness it would mean the loss of three astronauts.
While there are plenty of supplies at the ISS right now, there is an issue of safety that has a ticking clock. You see when a Soyuz capsule goes to the space station it does not return immediately. Instead it stay there as a life boat in case of emergency of some kind.
Since this space craft can only carry three people, there has to be one for each set of three. Right now there are six people at the ISS, and to life-boat capsules. The problem is that the Soyuz can’t stay up there indefinitely. It has a 210 day life span, and then it is basically out of electricity to run the systems.
If the scheduled manned launch next month does not happen, three of the astronauts will have to come home. Then if the December launch happens they will have to abandon the ISS altogether.
Now, that does not mean that the ISS will be derelict, it is capable of ground control. As long as no major systems fail, which would require human intervention to fix, then the station will just go on whizzing around the planet.
This is the kind of situations that get people killed. Even though the ISS can be controlled form the ground there is going to be an incredible amount of pressure on Roscosmos to find a problem that can be fixed and, at the very least, the December launch date is met.
This can lead to cutting of corners and acceptance of risk that would never be acceptable otherwise. The thing is we are talking actual rocket science here! This pursuit has so little tolerance of variation that it is hard to come up with an analogy for it. Suffice it to say, if you make a mistake in manned space flight, it more often than not kills you.
Hopefully the Russians will find a real answer and fix the damned thing. We will actually have a chance to see if there is really something systemic wrong with the Soyuz program. After two failed launches at Baikonur they will be launching another Soyuz from Plesetsk.
If they can successfully place the Russian GPS satellite, then there is hope that we’ll be able to keep the ISS manned and humans in space.
What is on your minds tonight Firedogs? The floor is yours!