The upper stage of a Soyuz-U booster carrying an unmanned Russian Progress supply ship malfunctioned and shut down just over five minutes after launch today in Kazakhstan, sending 2.9 tons of space station supplies and equipment crashing back to Earth, NASA officials said.
It was the first post-shuttle launch to the lab complex. Officials said they believe the ship came down in the Altai Republic, part of the Russian Federation, near the border with Mongolia.
It was the second failure in a row for the Russian space program after the Breeze-M upper stage of a more powerful Proton rocket malfunctioned Thursday, stranding a communications satellite in the wrong orbit. The Breeze-M is not related to the Soyuz-U's upper stage.
The Progress M-12M/44P spacecraft was loaded with 2,050 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen, 926 pounds of water, and 2,777 pounds of U.S. and Russian dry cargo. While the supply train to the space station is critical for supporting a full-time crew of six, the lab complex currently is in good shape, flush with supplies and equipment delivered to the outpost aboard the shuttle Atlantis in July.
But engineers want to find out what went wrong with the Soyuz-U upper stage as soon as possible because it is virtually identical to the third stage used by Russia's manned Soyuz spacecraft. Launch of the next manned Soyuz mission is targeted for September 22.
"So obviously, this has implications to the vehicle on orbit and the crew as well," said Mike Suffredini, manager of the space station program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "Our Russian colleagues...will immediately begin to assess the data that's available to try to determine root cause."
But given the supplies already stored on board the space station, "we're in a good position logistically to withstand this loss of supplies," Suffredini said. "And in fact, I would tell you we can go several months without a resupply vehicle if that becomes necessary."
Three station crew members--Expedition 28 commander Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev, and Ronald Garan--are scheduled to return to Earth on September 8 aboard the Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft.
They are to be replaced by Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoly Ivanishin, and NASA flight engineer Dan Burbank, scheduled for launch September 22 aboard the Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft. It is not yet known what impact the Progress failure might have on that launch, but Suffredini said the departing crew can extend its stay if necessary to continue normal science operations while the Russians work to resolve the Progress anomaly.
In a worst-case scenario, he said, the station could make it to March without any additional cargo. But Borisenko's crew would have to head home sometime in October, if the upper stage problem is not resolved by then, leaving the station with a crew of three until replacements could be launched. While that would reduce the amount of research that could be conducted, the station would be in no immediate danger.
Soyuz crew ferry craft are certified for between 200 and 210 days in orbit. Borisenko, Samokutyaev and Garan blasted off April 4 U.S. time, so they have nearly eight weeks of margin beyond the planned September 8 landing target. If their stay is extended because of the Progress investigation, their station crewmates --Mike Fossum, Sergei Volkov, and Satoshi Furukawa--could delay their return to Earth about six weeks past the current November 16 target.
Given the safety record of the Soyuz-U rocket--745 successful launches and just 21 failures over nearly four decades--NASA managers are optimistic the Russians will resolve the problem before it would be necessary to reduce the station's crew size.
The Progress mission began with an on-time liftoff at 9:00:11 a.m. EDT (GMT-4). The initial phases of flight appeared normal as the Soyuz-U rocket climbed away from its firing stand under a cloudless blue sky. But during the third stage "burn," something went wrong and "the vehicle itself commanded an engine shutdown due to an engine anomaly," Suffredini said. The spacecraft was not going fast enough to reach orbit and U.S. tracking systems never saw the Progress climb above the horizon.
Maxim Matuchen, director of the Russian mission control center, radioed the news to the station's crew.
"Following 320 seconds of flight there was a failure in the upper stage of the launch vehicle," he said. "We lost comm after a while with the launch vehicle and the vehicle itself. And we did not report stage separation. In the previous comm pass, we attempted to contact the vehicle through every possible channel, commands, orbital monitoring, telemetry, and we have just finished our second comm pass, where we invoked all of the communications facilities. We sent commands to activate the comm (equipment) on board, unfortunately in vain."
"Understood, copy," Borisenko replied from orbit.
"This is it for the moment, we'll try and figure it out, what has happened, what the cause was, I just wanted to let you know and inform you, keep you in the picture."
"Thank you," Borisenko said. "This is very important that you let us know so quickly. Thank you from the entire crew."
Here is a list of planned flights to the International Space Station through the end of 2011:
DATE.......EVENT 08/24/11...Progress M-12M/44P launch 09/08/11...Soyuz TMA-21/26S landing (Garan, Samokutyaev, Borisienko) 09/22/11...Soyuz TMA-22/28S launch (Shkaplerov, Ivanishin, Burbank) 09/24/11...Soyuz TMA-22/28S docking 10/26/11...Progress M-13M/45P launch 10/28/11...Progress M-13M/45P docking 11/16/11...Soyuz TMA-02M/27S landing (Volkov, Fossum, Furukawa) 11/30/11...Soyuz TMA-03M/29S launch (Kononenko, Pettit, Kuipers) 11/30/11...SpaceX/Dragon (demo 2/3) launch 12/01/11...Soyuz TMA-03M/29S docking (Rassvet) 12/12/11...SpaceX/Dragon (demo 2/3) grapple 12/27/11...Progress M-14M/46P launch 12/27/11...SpaceX/Dragon (demo 2/3) release 12/29/11...Progress M-14M/46P docking (Pirs)