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Soyuz launch of Progress M-12M
A Soyuz-U rocket lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan last Wednesday, carrying the Progress M-12M cargo spacecraft. A failure of the rocket’s upper stage caused the loss of the spacecraft. (credit: RSC Energia)

Worrying about a lack of Progress

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Some launch services providers play up their long records of success: in some cases dozens of consecutive successful launches spanning years, even decades. They do so, understandably, to demonstrate their abilities and reliability. However, there’s another truism in the launch field: you’re only as good as your last launch. And if that most recent launch if not successful, no record of previous success will mitigate the effect of that failure to the customer whose payload was lost, or ameliorate the nervousness of the customer for the next launch.

“We’re in a good position logistically to withstand this loss of supplies,” Suffredini said Wednesday. “We can go several months without a resupply vehicle if that becomes necessary.”

That’s the situation the partners of the International Space Station program are facing after last Wednesday’s failed launch of a Progress cargo spacecraft on a Soyuz rocket. The Soyuz has a long track record of successful launches, but this one failure has raised new concerns about not just the Soyuz rocket, but the relatively precarious current situation of access to the ISS for both cargo and crew, an issue with both logistical and political implications.

Coming to grips with failure

Wednesday’s launch of a Soyuz-U rocket carrying the Progress M-12M spacecraft (designated Progress 44 by NASA as it was the 44th Progress mission to the ISS) was about as routine as space missions go in the current era. Every previous Progress mission—not just those going to ISS but to the Mir and Salyut space stations operated by Russia and the former Soviet Union—had launched successfully. Like clockwork, it seemed, Progresses launch and, two or three days later, dock with the ISS.

The launches are so routine that even ISS management sometimes skip watching broadcasts of the launches, as NASA ISS program manager Mike Suffredini chose do to, electing to work in his office in Houston at 8 am local time (1300 GMT) when the Soyuz blasted off from Baikonur. “Sometimes I go into the control center for launches, and sometimes I don’t,” he said at a press briefing a few hours after the failed launch. Instead, he was working in his office when an email arrived announcing the launch, but didn’t get the one that typically follows indicating that the Progress had reached orbit and had deployed its “appendages”, its antennas and solar panels. “After about eight minutes I didn’t see anything and after ten minutes I didn’t see anything. About that time phones starting ringing and emails started pouring in.”

It soon became clear that the Progress had failed to reach orbit. Russian officials later confirmed that the Soyuz’s third stage shut down about five minutes and 20 seconds after liftoff. Debris from the Progress and the upper stage rained down in the Altai region of Siberia; no major damage was reported, although some locals claimed to have suffered headaches they believed to be caused by exposure to fuel carried in the upper stage and Progress (but denied by Russian officials). Suffredini said Monday morning the problem appeared to involve a “quick” loss of pressure at some point between the turbopump and engine chamber, but had no additional information.

The immediate impact of the Progress failure is the loss of 2.9 tons of food, water, propellant, and other supplies that it carried. Suffredini, though, said the missing cargo would have little effect on station operations, thanks in large part to the surfeit of supplies brought to the station on STS-135, the final shuttle mission, last month. “We’re in a good position logistically to withstand this loss of supplies,” he said Wednesday. “We can go several months without a resupply vehicle if that becomes necessary.” The limiting factor he said last week were what he delicately described as “potty parts”—supplies for the station’s toilet. In an update Monday morning, he added that one Russian crew member might need to borrow clothes if he remains on the station passed the planned September 8 return date, as appears likely.

In addition, Progress is not the only vehicle that can transport cargo to the ISS. Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV) have each performed two missions to the ISS; they fly less frequently than Progress but carry more cargo on each mission. The third ATV, dubbed Edoardo Amaldi, arrived in Kourou, French Guiana, last week for preparations for launch early next year.

Coming soon will be two new commercial vehicles to pick up the slack in ISS cargo transportation. SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has already performed one test flight late last year (see “2010: the year commercial human spaceflight made contact”, The Space Review, December 13, 2010) and is tentatively slated to make a second test flight no earlier than November 30. That flight will combine two test flights originally planned under SpaceX’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA, allowing Dragon to approach the ISS and berth with the station. Suffredini said last week that NASA does have the ability to fly several hundred kilograms of cargo on that test flight, but doesn’t expect to use much, if any, of it.

“Our Russian colleagues are going to do what’s right and solve this anomaly,” Suffredini said. “Right now I think they would tell you that they’re cautiously optimistic that they’ll keep the ISS manned at least with three crew.”

Orbital Sciences, meanwhile, is continuing development of its COTS cargo vehicle, Cygnus, and its Taurus 2 launcher. The first Cygnus spacecraft arrived at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia the same day as the Progress failure. Orbital plans to launch it on the company’s sole planned COTS mission around February of next year, after performing an initial test flight of the new Taurus 2 rocket near the end of this year. Orbital’s schedule has been delayed for several weeks, though: Dave Thompson, chairman and CEO or Orbital, said last month that work on the new launch facilities on Wallops Island had taken longer than planned.

A bigger concern, though, is the effect the Soyuz launch failure will have on its eponymous spacecraft, which is now the only means of transporting crews to and from the ISS. While not identical, the Soyuz-U rocket used to launch Progress spacecraft is very similar to the Soyuz-FG rocket that launches Soyuz spacecraft; that’s especially the case for the upper stage, which appears to be the cause of last week’s failure. An extended failure could, in a worst-case scenario, cause the crews to abandon the station.

At last Wednesday’s press conference, Suffredini played down the prospects of “demanning” the station. Three ISS crewmembers—Andrey Borisenko, Ron Garan, and Alexander Samokutyaev—were scheduled to leave the station and return to Earth on Soyuz TMA-21 on September 8. Their departure, Suffredini said, could be extended perhaps to late October before the Soyuz spacecraft reaches the end of its certified on-orbit life of 210 days. Three others—Sergei Volkov, Mike Fossum and Satoshi Furukawa—are slated to return in mid-November on Soyuz TMA-02M.

At a follow-up press briefing Monday morning, though, Suffredini indicated that the station could be uncrewed by mid-November if the Soyuz does not return to flight before then. The planned September 8 return of Soyuz TMA-21 will be delayed, he said, but likely only until mid-September because of lighting conditions at the Kazakhstan landing site. By the time the landing window there opens up in late October, the Soyuz will be reaching the end of its certified lifetime. The next crewed Soyuz launch, TMA-12, had been scheduled for September 21 (US time), but Suffredini said Monday it would almost certainly be delayed. “I don’t think a bookie would take any odds” for an on-time launch, he said. “I can’t imagine the Soyuz flying on the 21st. That’s pretty much off the table.”

Suffredini also said that they were still planning to return Soyuz TMA-02 in mid-November because of limited options for returning the crew after that because of lighting and weather in Kazakhstan. If the Soyuz had not returned to flight by then, he said, that would mean the station would be uncrewed for the first time in a decade. “Our Russian colleagues are going to do what’s right and solve this anomaly,” he said. “Right now I think they would tell you that they’re cautiously optimistic that they’ll keep the ISS manned at least with three crew.”

History suggests that it is possible for Russia to quickly bounce back from a launch failure. On October 15, 2002, a Soyuz-U rocket, carrying a Foton science satellite, exploded about half a minute after liftoff from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia, raining debris on the spaceport and killing one soldier with the Russian Space Forces. Just 15 days later—and only two days later than planned—a Soyuz-FG spacecraft carrying the Soyuz TMA-1 spacecraft, with a crew of three bound for the ISS, lifted off from Baikonur. Investigators had blamed the earlier Soyuz failure on a “foreign object” in the rocket’s propulsion system: a one-time incident and not a systemic flaw.

Rohrabacher proposed that funding be transferred from other agency programs, including the SLS, to accelerate commercial efforts.

However, it’s been a rough period for the Russian space industry, which has suffered from four launch failures in less than nine months. Last December, three GLONASS navigation satellites were lost on a Proton launch, a failure blamed on the rocket’s upper stage being filled with too much fuel and thus making it too heavy to achieve orbit. In February, a geodesy satellite launched on a small Rockot booster was stranded in a low orbit when its upper stage failed to reignite. And just the week before the Soyuz launch failure, a communications satellite failed to enter its planned geostationary transfer orbit when its upper stage shut down before completing its sequence of five burns. While all four failures involved upper stages, there is no evidence of a common technical root cause for them. However, the failures have generated concerns about the state of the Russian space industry and have already caused repercussions, including the forced retirement earlier this year of Anatoly Perminov, the head of the Russian space agency Roskosmos.

Making political hay

The Soyuz launch underscored the fragility of access to the ISS, particularly in the post-shuttle era. (It’s worth noting that even if the Space Shuttle was still flying, an extended hiatus in Soyuz flights could still lead to unmanning the ISS as the Soyuz is also used as a station lifeboat and has a limited lifetime on orbit.) Not surprisingly, the Soyuz failure generated political reactions, confirming existing, if widely-differing views, from members of Congress.

“This episode underscores America’s need for reliable launch systems of its own to carry cargo and crew into space,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) in a statement issued the day of the launch failure. “The only way to achieve this goal is to place more emphasis on commercial cargo and crew systems currently being developed by American companies.”

Rohrabacher, perhaps the strongest advocate in Congress for NASA’s commercial crew development program, proposed that funding be transferred from other agency programs, including the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift vehicle, to accelerate commercial efforts. “I am calling on General [Charles] Bolden, the NASA Administrator, to propose an emergency transfer of funding from unobligated balances in other programs, including the Space Launch System, to NASA’s commercial crew initiative,” he said. “NASA could potentially transfer several hundred million dollars from this long term development concept, since the SLS project has not even started, to the more urgently needed systems that can launch astronauts to ISS, reliably and affordably.”

“There is no cost-estimate-related basis for continuing to delay the commitment to proceed with the SLS development plans,” Hutchison said.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) reached a very different conclusion about the impact of the Progress failure. “This failure underscores the importance of successful development of our own National capabilities and at the same time demonstrates the risks with having limited options for ISS supply and crew rotation,” she said in a statement. “As we have already seen with the multi-year delay with commercial providers of cargo to the space station, the country would greatly benefit from the timely implementation of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and development of the Space Launch System (SLS) as a back-up system.”

Hutchison referenced in her statement the summary of an independent cost assessment about the SLS prepared by Booz Allen Hamilton and released by NASA earlier last week. The document included no quantitative cost figures about the SLS, but concluded that NASA’s own estimates were “acceptable” for near-term decisions over the next three to five years, while warning that those estimates are “not suitable for long-term budget planning or the development of a program baseline.” In particular, the report said that the NASA estimates included some long-term cost efficiencies that have not been attained on previous agency programs “and leads to the impression that the estimate is optimistic.”

Hutchison focused on the more positive near-term conclusions of the Booz Allen report. “There is no cost-estimate-related basis for continuing to delay the commitment to proceed with the SLS development plans that were required by the Congress to have been delivered in the Section 309 Report that was due on January 10th,” she said, referring to the report on NASA’s development plans required by last year’s NASA authorization act. “We strongly encourage NASA to immediately announce this week—not next month—the design for their next launch vehicle.”

NASA did not release its plans last week for the SLS, nor did it immediately respond to Rohrabacher’s request for a proposed “emergency” transfer of funds to commercial crew work. But then, neither the SLS nor commercial crew are near-term solutions for the problem facing NASA and the other ISS partners now: how long they will have to wait before the Soyuz returns to flight and restores crew access to the ISS. Even with at least two unmanned Soyuz launches— a commercial mission and a Progress launch—planned before the next crewed flight, a lot will be riding on that next mission, including how quickly and effectively Russia can bounce back from last week’s failure and thus restore the confidence of its international partners.