It was just over 2 months ago when a Russian Progress craft crashed shortly after lift off. It was a devastating blow for the International Space Station project as the Progress spacecraft and the Proton rocket it rides to space on are the lifeline that keeps the ISS going. The failure of a Progress craft also called into question the man-rated Soyuz craft as they’re quite similar craft and should they be unable to launch that would effectively spell the end of human activities on the ISS. Investigations into the disaster continued and they finally nailed down the cause of the failure.
The cause turned out to be contamination of the fuel lines in the Progress craft. This in turn caused a low fuel supply to the gas generator which the on board computer interpreted as a fault and shut down the engines completely. This left the craft on a sub-orbital trajectory eventually leading it to crash in the Atlai region in Russia. The investigation revealed that this particular fault was of no immediate threat to either the Progress or Soyuz craft however so Roscosmos saw no need to delay any of the following flights further than they already had.
Yesterday then saw the first launch of Progress since the incident back in August, and thankfully it was completely successful:
An unmanned Russian cargo ship launched toward the International Space Station Sunday (Oct. 30) packed with nearly three tons of supplies for the orbiting lab’s crew in what marked the first delivery run to the station since an August rocket crash.
The cargo ship, called Progress 45, lifted off atop a Soyuz rocket at 6:11 a.m. EDT (1011 GMT) from a launch pad at the central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome. It will arrive at the space station early Wednesday.
The successful launch of the Progress craft means that missions using the manned Soyuz craft can continue on without fear of them failing in the same way. This is crucial to the on going ISS mission as prior to this launch the future of the manned crews was in question and could have resulted in the ISS being unmanned for the first time in a decade. The reasoning behind this is simple, if the Progress and Soyuz are grounded then there’s no launch system that can take over their capability. Sure we have things like the JAXA HTV and the ESA ATV which are proven cargo delivery vehicles but they’ve both only launched once and neither could keep up with the rapid launch rate that the Progress offers. The Soyuz is the only means we currently have to get people onto the ISS and it being grounded would effectively end our ability to keep a human presence there.
With the shakedown of the Progress complete and the mission looking to be a success it looks like we’ll be able to reinstate the full crew size of 6 in the ISS. Whilst the station can be run with only a crew of 3 (indeed it was for the majority of its life) there’s a lot more work that can be done when the crew is doubled, especially if EVAs are required. With the SpaceX Dragon demonstration missing rapidly approaching we’re not far off having another means with which to reach the ISS. As these recent events have shown having another launch capability is critical to ensuring that our missions in space can continue uninterrupted and hopefully we’re not too far off a time when there’s more than just 2 manned launch providers.