More Russian Space Woes Likely to Delay Next ISS Crew Launch, Commercial Proton Launches

More Russian Space Woes Likely to Delay Next ISS Crew Launch, Commercial Proton Launches

Problems in Russia’s aerospace sector are still hampering its space program on which the United States and global commercial satellite companies increasingly rely.   The next Soyuz spacecraft slated to launch a crew to the International Space Station (ISS) apparently was damaged beyond repair during recent testing, while commercial Proton launches are on hold because of technical issues.

Last year, Russia experienced five launch failures, including a Soyuz rocket that was intended to send a Progress cargo spacecraft to the ISS.   A multi-week delay in launching a three-person ISS crew resulted as Russian experts worked to ensure that a very similar Soyuz rocket was indeed safe to take people into space.

The spacecraft that carries crew members is also named Soyuz, and on Friday Russia announced that the Soyuz spacecraft assigned for the next crew launch, expected on March 30, failed a test.  Anatoly Zak at reports today that Russian industry sources and the website Novosti Kosmonavtiki (Space News) are indicating that during testing the spacecraft was pressurized “up to 3 atmospheres, instead of the nominal 1.3-1.5 atmospheres….The bad quality of materials in the spacecraft…had also been suspected.  Another report surfaced on January 29, 2012 … that a welding line on the descent module had broken as a result of the internal pressure” and the “descent module was damaged beyond repair.”  Zak estimates that the next launch might be delayed until the end of April at the earliest if a decision is made to use a replacement descent module.

At the same time, a Proton rocket had to be rolled back from the launch pad days before launch for a second time.   Intended to launch a commercial communications satellite, SES-4 (or NSS-14), the launch was supposed to take place in December.  A day before before launch, a problem was detected that required the rocket to be removed from the pad for repair.  The launch was rescheduled for January 28, but once again had to be scrubbed.  This time it reportedly is a problem with a transit cable in the Proton’s first stage that will require partial disassembly of the vehicle per and the rocket again must be rolled back from the pad.  A new date for the SES-4 launch has not been announced. The date of the next commercial Proton launch, of a Sirius radio broadcasting satellite, is also in doubt.

Until recently, Russian rockets and spacecraft had a reputation for reliability.  The number of problems now surfacing raises serious questions about the health of the Russian aerospace industry just when the United States has become completely reliant on Russia to keep the ISS crewed.  The U.S. government’s decision to terminate the space shuttle last year with no U.S. system to replace it means that NASA must purchase services from Russia for crew transportation to and from the ISS and for providing a “lifeboat” capability so crews can escape in an emergency.   The commercial satellite sector also relies heavily on Russia’s commercial launch services.  In 2010, Russia conducted 13 commercial launches, compared to six for Europe’s Arianespace and four for the United States, according to The Space Report 2011.

Last month, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appointed Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to investigate the problems in the Russian space industry and determine solutions.  Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, was due to report to Rogozin at the end of last week on the space industry’s challenges, but no stories have appeared in the Russia media yet to indicate that such meetings took place.   The commission investigating the failure of the Phobos-Grunt Mars mission also was supposed to issue its conclusions last week.  On January 26, Russia’s news agency Itar-Tass said the report was completed and would be submitted to Roscosmos director Vladimir Popovkin today (Sunday) and made public this coming week.

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