On Wednesday, the Russian federal space agency (Roscosmos) said the Progress M-12M cargo ship was not placed in the correct orbit by its rocket and fell back to Earth.
The first and second stages (sections) of the Soyuz-FG space rocket used for manned launches differ from those of the Soyuz-U which carries the Progress freighter, but the third stage is identical in both rockets.
The next manned flight to the International Space Station (ISS) - currently staffed by a six-person multinational crew - is scheduled for 22 September and a cargo vessel with new supplies is due to fly to the space station on 28 October.
In a statement on Thursday, Roscosmos said it was in contact with Nasa about "resolving questions" related to support for the ISS as well as future manned and cargo launches.
It also announced a full review of its rockets and the creation of a working group that would "control the execution of the manned space flight programme."
The loss of the Progress freighter comes at a particularly embarrassing time for Russia in the year it celebrates the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first manned space flight and as it becomes the sole nation capable of delivering humans to the ISS.
But it is just the latest in a spate of mishaps to hit the Russian space programme. In December last year, three satellites crucial for providing Russia with global sat-nav coverage failed shortly after launch. The head of Roscosmos, Anatoly Perminov, was replaced in the wake of the accident.
This month, a telecommunications satellite was placed in the wrong orbit by its Russian Proton launcher. A fault with the booster was blamed.
This is exactly what the critics of terminating the Shuttle before we had a replacement were afraid would happen, they said that relying on the Russians was to put the operation of the space station at great risk.
How is this different than relying only on NASA and having the shuttle program put on hold after it's disasters
Now we have nothing except contracts with a nation that can hardly be considered an ally.
The Russian space program has suffered several bitter setbacks in the past nine months.
Just last week, the Russian telecommunication satellite Express-AM4 vanished off radar. A short time later it was found by Russia's traditional rivals in the space race, the United States. It had ended up in the wrong orbit.
In December, three navigation satellites crashed into the Pacific. Three months later, the military surveillance satellite Geo-Ik-2 also ended up in the wrong orbit. And on Wednesday, the unmanned cargo spacecraft Progress crashed in the Altay mountains in eastern Russia, on the way to delivering supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).
Billions into a black hole
According to calculations by Russian daily newspaper Kommersant, Russia's accidents "en route to space" have cost at least 16 billion rubles (about 380 million euros/$548 million) .
Boris Lyashchuk, managing director of the Russian Space Academy in Moscow, told Deutsche Welle he could find no rational explanation for this series of failures, labeling it as probably just an unlucky streak.
"I've already experienced something like that in the Perestroika era and in the '90s. The current breakdown is most likely due to a random failure," he said.
The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, said in a statement that the accident was likely due to problems with the ignition of the rocket's third stage.
Consequences for ISS
The cargo ship was transporting supplies to the ISS
In the meantime, further launches have been canceled for safety reasons. Until as recently as a few weeks ago, when the rival US space program shut down its space shuttle program with the final flight of Atlantis, the Russians had been enjoying the fact that they were once again number one in the space race.
But after the latest accident, Russia now faces critical questions. In an interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel, Johann-Dietrich Wörner, the head of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), called for an international investigation into the incident.
"This cannot be left solely to the Russians," said Wörner.
The next manned Soyuz mission to the space station had been planned for September 22, with two Russians and one American on board. This flight will likely be postponed until the error is found and eliminated. The three astronauts who should have returned to Earth will have to extend their stay in space, though NASA has assured that they have sufficient supplies to last them until the end of 2012.
Lost years, renewed interest
Lyashchuk believes this streak of bad luck is not a permanent setback for the Russian space program, as there have been significant investments and growing interest in space science from the Russian state in recent years.
During the past 20 years space projects were virtually ignored, says Lyashchuk, leading to neglected facilities and insufficient investment in training.
"Previously, the space study programs were among the most popular, but now everyone would rather become managers, lawyers and directors," he said.
For the people in the Altai region where Progress crashed, there are other concerns besides the space programs future.
The liquid fuel that leaked from the crash site has carcinogenic effects and could seriously harm the environment, according to Alexei Jablokov, a representative of Green Russia. He says it's difficult to contain the fuel, as it absorbs quickly into the surrounding soil and groundwater.
NASA may need to temporarily abandon the International Space Station this fall because of safety concerns about the Russian spacecraft that shuttles astronauts to the station, a top space official said Monday.
“We’re going to do what’s safest for the crew and the space station,” NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini said.
The announcement follows a decision by Russian space agency Roscosmos to push back a planned manned mission to the station late next month as experts continue to investigate what caused an unmanned Russian supply ship to crash last week shortly after launch. The part of the Soyuz rocket that failed during the incident is similar to the ones used to launch manned crafts.
NASA says that no official decision has been made but that their safety concerns will need to be allayed soon in order to prevent a temporary “de-crewing” of the station in late November, when the final members of the station’s current six-man crew are set to return to Earth.
A temporary evacuation of the station “would be a huge blow to NASA, which just completed construction of the ISS earlier this year, and has continuously occupied the station for 11 years,” the Houston Chronicle reports.
The six astronauts currently living in the station (three Russians, two Americans and one from Japan) will ride home in one of two Soyuz crafts already docked at the ISS. Those ships are only rated to stay in orbit for a set amount of time, so the crew does not have the option of staying indefinitely, Space.com reports.
Half of the crew was set to return on Sept. 8, although they will now spend an extra week in space before returning. The final three members are set to return to Earth in mid-November.
Imagine the furor that would ensue if, God forbid, American astronauts Mike Fossum or Ron Garan should perish in a Russian space mishap while they were being taxied home from the Space Station
New and fresh return capsules could be send to the station under remote and computer control with no one aboard to give the station crew a safe means of returning to earth without the current time limit
Should a Russian return capsule have a one in a million disaster and end the life of an American astronaut, do you really think the American people will be so logical?
Footnote the engineering studies I had read about placed from the beginning of the program the odds as high as a fatal event happening in shuttle missions as one in 200 or so
they certainly dont want to talk about how it turned out to be 1 in 68.......
NASA may have to temporarily abandon the International Space Station in November, as a recent Russian rocket crash has called into question the safety of the vehicle that ferries astronauts to and from the station. If astronauts have to board up and leave the orbiting science laboratory, how long could it last without human maintenance?
Several years. If NASA were to completely abandon the space station and make no attempt whatsoever to maintain it, the engines would eventually run out of fuel or suffer some kind of mechanical failure. Its orbit would decay—that's a space-y way of saying the station would get closer and closer to Earth—until it came crashing down. (NASA plans to aim the charred debris at the Indian Ocean if an emergency landing ever becomes necessary.) It's hard to predict exactly when the end would come. When NASA abandoned its low-Earth-orbit station called Skylab in 1974, they expected it would remain aloft until 1983. (The last crew left some food and clothing in case the space agency had a change of heart.) But intense solar radiation in the late 1970s expanded the Earth's upper atmosphere, which increased drag on Skylab and brought it down in 1979.
In reality, the current crimp in the astronaut supply chain is very unlikely to bring down the space station. Even if there's no crew onboard, mission control could steer the station around space debris and give it a little boost when necessary to keep it in orbit. Unmanned rockets would refuel the engines, and before the last crew left the station—if it ever came to that—they'd install redundant parts to make sure the critical cooling and power systems could survive a few unexpected failures. (The engines would stop working without coolant, as the temperature swings by 400 degrees Fahrenheit multiple times per day, depending on whether the ISS is exposed to the sun.)
Assuming the station didn't come careening out of orbit, its interior would stay in pretty good shape for quite some time. Rust is occasionally a problem up there—corroded wiring briefly disabled the orientation system in 2007—but that's only a risk when there is moisture emanating from the humans and animals onboard. NASA could easily dehumidify the station before withdrawing, preventing significant rust. Other factors that destroy objects on earth, like microbes and pests, aren't a problem. Fungi and bacterial spores can live for years in space, but they're not likely to thrive or damage any equipment. Aside from some brittleness from temperature cycling and some mechanical parts in need of a little lubricant, the astronauts could come back years later and find most of the station's innards to be in working order.
The biggest problem with temporary abandonment is that many of the science experiments on the station would be cut short. Space-based biology is a big field of interest, but some of those studies couldn't survive without people there to water the plants and feed the mice.