Space Station Program Manager Mike Suffredini extended a vote of confidence to the Russian space agency on Feb. 2, as officials in the partner nation sort through the recent ground test failure of a Soyuz capsule that will force a six-week delay in the launch of the next three-person crew to the orbiting space laboratory.
Crew returns and future launches will likely slide throughout 2012 as well to ensure the briefest interruptions in sustained six-person station operations to keep research activities at the highest levels.
“In the [Soyuz] vehicles we use and that I have insight into, I have confidence in the ability and focus of the individuals and managers that build and fly those systems,” Suffredini told a news teleconference. “What they do is comparable to what we do in the U.S. The attention to detail is comparable to what we do here in the U.S. The robustness of the vehicle is unique. It’s just a difficult business we are in. That is what I can attest to.”
With the retirement of’s shuttle fleet in 2011, the U.S.-led, 15-nation station program must rely on the Soyuz spacecraft for crew transport to the station until American commercial providers emerge. NASA’s latest estimate places the earliest operational date for commercial providers at 2017.
Russia’s Soyuz TMA-04M capsule that was scheduled for a March 29 launch will be replaced as a result of a test that overpressurized a section of the descent module service compartment that houses a steering thruster assembly. The incident occurred last month in an altitude test chamber at the Energia Space Rocket Corp.
The incident brought the soundness of welding on the spacecraft into question, Suffredini says.
The replacement capsule, which will undergo a similar test before its launch, will not be ready to carry its three-person U.S. and Russian crew to the orbital outpost until May 15. The replacement capsule will not be pressure tested until a Russian board completes an investigation and presents the results and a plan to prevent a recurrence to the station partnership, Suffredini says.
The Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft that launched Dan Burbank, Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin to the station on Nov. 13 will descend with the three men on April 28 rather than March 16. The Soyuz TMA-03M that launched on Dec. 21 with Don Pettit, Oleg Kononenko and Andre Kuipers will descend in July, rather than May 16, as previously planned.
Russian news reports that an official at Energia involved in the failed test had died as a result of the incident are untrue. “It’s an unfortunate event, but not related at all,” according to Suffredini.
Russia’s space industry has been under scrutiny for a series of launch failures in 2011, including the late August loss of a Progress resupply mission to the space station and the early November launch of the Phobos-Grunt Mars probe, which left the spacecraft stranded in Earth orbit until it eventually re-entered the atmosphere.