Suffredini: Space Station Launch Delays Will Have Little Impact on Overall Operations-Correction

Suffredini: Space Station Launch Delays Will Have Little Impact on Overall Operations-Correction

Correction:  An earlier verison of this posting misspelled Mr. Suffredini’s name as Sufferdini.

NASA International Space Station (ISS) program manager Mike Suffredini said today that although the launch of the next crew to the ISS will be delayed and other aspects of the schedule juggled, overall there will be virtually no impact on ISS operations.

The next crew was supposed to be launched to ISS on March 30.   Last week, however, their Soyuz descent capsule was badly damaged in a testing accident.  Russia has decided to use an entirely different Soyuz module rather than trying to replace just the descent part of it and is pulling up the next Soyuz that already is in manufacturing.   That will delay the launch until May 15.

Consequently, the ISS partners are making modest changes to the crew rotation schedule that will also impact when the next automated Russian cargo spacecraft, Progress, is launched.   ISS crews rotate on a roughly six month schedule, with three astronauts ferried to and from ISS on a single Soyuz spacecraft.  With a regular crew complement of six, that means four Soyuz spacecraft are docking with and undocking from the ISS every year.  Added to that are the automated cargo spacecraft — Russia’s Progress, which are launched between four and six times a year, plus Europe’s ATV and Japan’s HTV, each about once a year.   Thus, ISS is a traffic hub, with complicating factors such as sun angles dictating when certain launch and docking operations occur.

Suffredini played down the idea that the changes due to the Soyuz testing failure problem would have any long term impact on ISS operations and the scientific research the crews are conducting.   What affects scientific research is the number of crew aboard.   A hiccup last year because of a Russian launch failure (of a Progress cargo spacecraft in August) meant only three instead of six crew members were aboard for longer than expected, reducing scientific output.   Now that the six-person complement has been restored, astronauts are working hard to make up the difference so the goal of an average of 35 hours per week over the course of an “expedition” is maintained.   Right now, the astronauts are spending more than that on science to make up for the lost time last fall.

He also expressed confidence in the part of the Russian space program that produces the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft and their launch vehicles.   In response to a question from a reporter about other failures, such as the Phobos-Grunt Mars mission, Sufferdini said that was outside his area of expertise.   He stressed that he is confident of the Russian company, Energia, that manufactures the spacecraft for the ISS program and of its ability to investigate and remedy failures when they occur.

On a separate but related issue, he also talked about the upcoming launch of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to ISS.   The next test launch of Dragon and its Falcon 9 launch vehicle recently slipped from February 7 to March 20.  It will demonstrate the ability of Dragon to berth with ISS.   Dragon is designed to be used as a cargo spacecraft for ISS and NASA has Space Act Agreements with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to help them develop “commercial cargo” systems.  They were supposed to be operational by this year, as NASA’s contract with Russia to take cargo to the ISS runs out.  (Its contract to take crews to and from ISS is separate.)

Suffredini expressed no surprise that the SpaceX test launch slipped to March 20 and said that his personal belief is that it will slip to the first week in April while stressing that was not a firm statement, just his expectation based on years of experience.    Delaying until early April is not a problem in his view.    The key is to avoid a conflict with the next Progress launch and docking in mid-April.  He said that all the ISS partners, not only Russia, must agree to the SpaceX test berthing and they had just had a meeting in which they all said they were “comfortable” with the plan.

He added that because of the Russian cargo spacecraft failure last fall,  Russia owes NASA a certain amount of cargo capacity to the ISS.  If the U.S. commercial cargo efforts of SpaceX and Orbital are delayed, that should buy NASA some time into the early part of 2013.


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