The “Soyuz Epoch” continues to go badly. Shortly after the space shuttle program came to a conclusion the Russian “partners” on the International Space Station (ISS) project announced that this was the era of the Soyuz spacecraft. One should never tempt fate. Shortly after this bit of cosmic bragging, an unmanned Progress spacecraft did a face plant into the ground. Now? Problems with the manned version of this craft are being discovered.
Soyuz spacecraft are tested to see if they can withstand the various pressures placed upon them when they are sent into the hard vacuum of space and upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. To see if each of these spacecraft can handle these stresses they are placed in a pressure chamber to look for any potential issues. The Soyuz TMA-04M that was to ferry the next crew to the ISS – failed these tests.
This means that, at a minimum, the descent stage of this craft will have to be replaced. In all likelihood this will push the next crewed flight to the ISS to around mid-April and it could also see other flights moved back as well. Officials with the Russian space agency are attempting to downplay this failure, stating that it should not impact the launch schedule. Given that the discovery of this problem comes shortly after the Progress launch failure, and the loss of its estimated three tons of food, fuel and supplies –red flags should be being raised within NASA.
Luckily, the crew currently on-station arrived at the orbiting laboratory some two months later than scheduled and can easily have their stay on the ISS extended.
As it stands right now, NASA is incapable of launching astronauts on its own and is forced to pay Russia $63 million per seat on the current iteration of the spacecraft that was first launched in 1967. The White House scrapped all plans for the successor program to the space shuttle, Constellation, and placed its hopes that emerging commercial space firms could handle the business of launching cargo and crews to low-Earth-orbit.
In 2010, this seemed to be a very savvy move; Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) launched two of its Falcon 9 rockets within a six-month time span. The second flight of the Falcon 9 carried a test version of the company’s Dragon spacecraft to orbit and after circling the Earth twice – the spacecraft safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. This made SpaceX the first private company in history to accomplish this feat.
With a single demonstration flight under its belt, SpaceX requested, and NASA tentatively agreed, to combine the next two demonstration flights of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services or “COTS” contract into one. SpaceX has not launched since December of 2010 and the combined COTS 2/COTS 3 mission has slipped from Feb. 7 to sometime this March.
Other established and relatively new aerospace companies such as Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Blue Origin are all working on spacecraft to fill the gap left by the space shuttle. This could see NASA with a variety of spacecraft at its disposal and allow the space agency a level of security it has never had before. To date, NASA has only ever had one active human-rated spacecraft in service at any given time. Whenever an accident occurred, NASA would be unable to launch crews to orbit for a period of years (a span of two years elapsed between both the Challenger and Columbia disasters). If efforts to support commercial access to space are successful, NASA could potentially see this problem disappear. If an issue with one type of spacecraft arises the agency can simply opt to fly crews on a different spacecraft.
While NASA is pinning its hopes that these companies can handle missions to low-Earth-orbit – it is focusing on launching the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle or Orion MPCV. A test flight of this spacecraft is slated to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV in 2014. The Orion MPCV is one of the elements that survived the cancellation of the Constellation Program. Its development was slowed dramatically however due to political wrangling.
Until the Dragon spacecraft begins regular trips to-and-from orbit and other vehicles come into service, however, NASA is stuck with flying astronauts on the Russian Soyuz. Given that the cost to fly U.S. astronauts on the Soyuz is constantly increasing and that safety issues are becoming more frequent, it is in NASA’s best interests to get safe, U.S.- built spacecraft into the sky as soon as possible.