Progress, Proton and The Future of the ISS.

Russia’s space program has a reputation for sticking to ideas once they’ve got them right. Their Soyuz (pronounced sah-yooz) craft  are a testament to this, having undergone 4 iterations since their initial inception but still sharing many of the base characteristics that were developed decades ago. The Soyuz family are also the longest serving series of spacecraft in history and with it only having 2 fatal accidents in that time they are well regarded as the safest spacecraft around. It’s no wonder then that 2 of the Soyuz capsules remain permanently docked to the International Space Station to serve as escape pods in the even of a catastrophe, a testament to the confidence the space industry has with them.

Recent news however has brought other parts of the Russia space program into question, namely their Proton launch stack. Last week saw a Proton launched communications satellite ending up in the wrong orbit when the upper orbital insertion model failed to guide it to the proper geostationary orbit. Then just this week saw another Proton launched payload, this time a Progress craft bound for the ISS, crashed shortly after launch:

The robotic Progress 44 cargo ship blasted off atop a Soyuz U rocket at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) from the central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and was due to arrive at the space station on Friday.

“Unfortunately, about 325 seconds into flight, shortly after the third stage was ignited, the vehicle commanded an engine shutdown due to an engine anomaly,” NASA station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters today. “The vehicle impacted in the Altai region of the Russian Federation.”

Now an unmanned spacecraft failing after launch wouldn’t be so much of a problem usually (apart from investigating why it happened) but the reason why this particular failure has everyone worried is the similarity between the human carrying Soyuz capsule and the Progress cargo craft that was on top of it. In essence they’re an identical craft with the Progress having a fuel pod instead of a crew capsule allowing it to refuel the ISS on orbit. A failure then with the Progress craft calls into question the Soyuz as well, especially when there’s been 2 launches so close to each other that have experienced problems.

From a crew safety perspective however the Soyuz should still be considered a safe craft. If an event such as the one that happened this week had a Soyuz rather than a Progress on top of it the crew would have been safe thanks to the launch escape system that flies on top of all manned Soyuz capsules. When a launch abort event occurs these rockets fire and pull the capsule safely away from the rest of the launch stack and thanks to the Soyuz’s design it can then descend back to earth on its usual ballistic trajectory. It’s not the softest of landings however, but it’s easily survivable.

The loss of cargo bound for the ISS does mean that some difficult decisions have to be made. Whilst they’re not exactly strapped for supplies at the moment (current estimates have them with a year of breathing room) the time required to do a full investigation into the failure does push other resupply and crew replacement missions back significantly. Russia currently has the only launch system capable of getting humans to and from the ISS and since they’re only a 3 person craft this presents the very real possibility that the ISS crew will be scaled back. Whilst I’m all aflutter for SpaceX their manned flights aren’t expected to come online until the middle of the decade and they’re the most advanced option at this point. If the problems with the Proton launch stack can be sorted expediently then the ISS may remain fully crewed, but only time will tell if this is the case.

The Soyuz and Progress series have proven to be some of the most reliable spacecraft developed to date and I have every confidence that Russia will be able to overcome these problems as they have done so in the past. Incidents like this demonstrate how badly commercialization of rudimentary space activities is required, especially when one of the former space powers doesn’t seem that interested in space anymore. Thankfully the developing private space industry is more than up to the challenge and we’re only a few short years away from these sorts of problems boiling down to switching manufacturers, rather than curtailing our efforts in space completely.

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