Grounded for now

Taxi ser­vice to space sta­tion sus­pended af­ter rocket fail­ure

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

WASH­ING­TON — The taxi ser­vice to the or­bit­ing In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion is tak­ing no pas­sen­gers un­til fur­ther no­tice.

Nei­ther the United States nor Rus­sia will be able to send as­tro­nauts to the ISS un­til in­ves­ti­ga­tors de­ter­mine why a Soyuz rocket failed af­ter blast-off on Thurs­day, com­pli­cat­ing an al­ready tricky launch cal­en­dar for 2019.

The only way to get as­tro­nauts from Earth to the ISS since 2011 has been aboard Rus­sian Soyuz rock­ets.

But the Rus­sian space agency Roscos­mos has grounded the rock­ets un­til a probe con­cludes into what caused the anom­aly which forced US as­tro­naut Nick Hague and Rus­sian cos­mo­naut Alek­sey Ov­chinin to make an emer­gency land­ing in Kaza­khstan.

Here are ques­tions and an­swers about the dis­rup­tion of ser­vice to the ISS:

How long could the sus­pen­sion last?

The next Soyuz launch for the ISS was sched­uled for Dec 20, and it is sup­posed to take a new three-per­son crew to the Space Sta­tion.

But it’s not clear how long it will be grounded.

“If it’s two months or six, I re­ally can’t spec­u­late on that,” In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion Op­er­a­tions In­te­gra­tion Man­ager Kenny Todd told a news con­fer­ence.

“They’re prob­a­bly go­ing to ground the Soyuz rock­ets for a while,” said Erik Seed­house, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Em­bry-Rid­dle Aero­nau­ti­cal Uni­ver­sity.

Seed­house, who spe­cial­izes in ap­plied avi­a­tion sci­ences, es­ti­mated that it would last at least “a few months”.

In 2015, the Progress — an un­manned trans­port space­craft that sent sup­plies to the ISS — had prob­lems sim­i­lar to those ex­pe­ri­ence on Thurs­day by the Soyuz rocket.

How­ever, the Thurs­day case in­volves a manned ve­hi­cle, “so there’s much stricter re­quire­ments in in­ves­ti­ga­tions”, Seed­house said.

The Euro­pean Space Agency has al­ready ac­knowl­edged that the in­ci­dent will af­fect the ISS cal­en­dar.

It is mak­ing con­tin­gency plans for the three cur­rent ISS crew mem­bers — Ger­man Alexan­der Gerst, Ser­ena Aunon-Chan­cel­lor from the US, and Rus­sian Sergey Prokopiev, all of whom were sched­uled to re­turn to Earth in De­cem­ber — to pos­si­bly stay aboard the sta­tion longer than ex­pected.

One po­ten­tial prob­lem: The space­craft that would let the ISS crew re­turn to Earth, which docked at the sta­tion in June, is equipped with bat­ter­ies that lose power af­ter about 200 days, NASA said.

That would in the­ory push the time limit of crew’s re­turn to Earth to early Jan­uary 2019, which is the sole lim­it­ing fac­tor, said John Logs­don, head of the Space Pol­icy In­sti­tute at The Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity.

As for food — there is enough for the crew to last sev­eral months, as the sta­tion is reg­u­larly re­sup­plied by un­manned Ja­pa­nese and Amer­i­can space­craft.

When will the US rock­ets be ready?

NASA moth­balled the Space Shut­tle pro­gram in 2011, and since then has been pay­ing Rus­sia tens of mil­lions of dol­lars to send as­tro­nauts to the ISS.

The con­tract with the Rus­sians ends in late 2019, and the US space agency has deals with two US com­pa­nies, Boe­ing and SpaceX, to step in.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX, who also runs elec­tric car­maker Tesla, will be us­ing its Fal­con 9 rock­ets. Since 2012 SpaceX has launched satel­lites for NASA, and has car­ried out 16 re­sup­ply mis­sions to the ISS.

Send­ing as­tro­nauts to the ISS will be a first for a pri­vately owned com­pany.

How­ever, SpaceX’s rocket pro­gram, just like Boe­ing’s, has run into de­lays, as is of­ten the case in the aero­space in­dus­try.

An un­manned Fal­con 9 rocket car­ry­ing a Dragon cap­sule is sched­uled for launch in Jan­uary 2019, with a sim­i­lar manned launch set for June 2019.

For Boe­ing, launches are set for March and Au­gust 2019 re­spec­tively.

BILL INGALLS / NASA VIA REUTERS

Rus­sian cos­mo­naut Alek­sey Ov­chinin and US as­tro­naut Nick Hague em­brace their fam­i­lies af­ter the Soyuz emer­gency land­ing in Baikonur, Kaza­khstan, on Thurs­day.

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