Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Progress 44 May Be Lost

A Progress spacecraft approaches the Space Station prior to docking. Image source:

Florida Today reports that Russia's Progress 44 cargo vehicle may have been lost enroute to the International Space Station.

Russian mission controllers just informed members of the station's six-person Expedition 28 crew that the Progress 44 ship may not have separated from the upper stage of a Soyuz rocket nearly six minutes into flight.

Russia's Mission Control Center in Korolev has attempted to regain contact with the spacecraft, "unfortunately in vain," the head of the MCC said, according to a translator on NASA TV.

UPDATE 2:30 PM reports Progress 44 crashed to Earth after an "engine anomaly."

"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 space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters today. "The vehicle impacted in the Altai region of the Russian Federation."

This map shows the location of the Altai Republic. Image source: offers this overview of the Progress spacecraft:

Progress spacecraft are automated, unpiloted and single-use vehicles that have delivered fuel and supplies to the International Space Station three to four times each year since 2001. The Progress design was modeled after Russia's Soyuz space capsule, which carries crewmembers to the ISS, but it is specially modified to carry cargo instead of people. Like the Soyuz, Progress vehicles are built to fly themselves but can also be remote-controlled by cosmonauts on the Space Station if required.

This is the second launch anomaly suffered by Russia in the last seven days.

Space News reported yesterday that Russian "ground teams have been unable to communicate with a large, European-built, Russian-owned telecommunications satellite launched into a bad orbit Aug. 18."

The statement from Roscosmos suggests that in addition to a bad launch provided by the Proton-Breeze M rocket, which released the Express-AM4 satellite far from its intended drop-off point, the satellite itself has a defective communications system that is unable to send or receive signals.

Roscosmos said flights of the Proton-Breeze M rocket have been suspended until a state-appointed board of inquiry determines the cause of what appears to be a problem in the Breeze M upper stage’s flight control system.

UPDATE 2:45 PM EDTAviation Week reports:

The fate of the capsule, which Russian authorities attempted to contact independently of the third stage, was unclear, said Nicole Cloutier-LeMasters, a NASA spokeswoman at the agency’s Johnson Space Center ...

In addition to carrying supply cargo, Progress 44 was to act as a propulsion source for orbital adjustments as well as debris avoidance maneuvers.

UPDATE 8:30 PM EDTAn Associated Press report on reports that pieces of the craft fell in the Choisky region of Russia's Altai province 900 miles northeast of the launch site. A regional official was quoted as saying, "The explosion was so strong that for 100 kilometers (60 miles) glass almost flew out of the windows."

The area is remote and night has fallen, so no information is available yet on damage or casualties.

The article quotes James Oberg, a widely recognized expert on the Russian space program, as saying a Russian source told him that when the incident occurred at 325 seconds into the flight the cargo vehicle had not yet separated from the Soyuz rocket.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher during a May 2010 hearing on the future of U.S. human space flight. Image source: U.S. House of Representatives.

UPDATE 8:45 PM EDT — California Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher has issued a press release in which he calls on the United States "to dramatically accelerate the commercial crew systems already under development" in the wake of the Progress 44 loss.

We need to get on with the task of building affordable launch systems to meet our nation’s needs for access to low Earth orbit, instead of promoting grandiose concepts which keep us vulnerable in the short and medium terms. The most responsible course of action for the United States is to dramatically accelerate the commercial crew systems already under development.

I am calling on General Bolden, the NASA Administrator, to propose an emergency transfer of funding from unobligated balances in other programs, including the Space Launch System, to NASA’s commercial crew initiative. Funding should be used to speed up the efforts of the four current industry partners to develop their systems and potentially expand the recent awards to include the best applicants for launch vehicle development.

NASA could potentially transfer several hundred million dollars from this long term development concept, since the SLS project has not even started, to the more urgently needed systems that can launch astronauts to ISS, reliably and affordably. This transfer will boost the development of American controlled technology and greatly reduce our dependence on the Russians.

Most of Rohrabacher's colleagues on the House space committee view SLS as pork for their districts and generally have been hostile to more funding for commercial space.

UPDATE 9:00 PM EDT — The above video is NASA's daily ISS update. It includes video of the Progress 44 launch but not the vehicle loss.

The above video is of the NASA press conference held this afternoon at Johnson Space Center, discussing the ramifications to the U.S. program of the Progress 44 loss.

UPDATE 9:15 PM EDTDoug Messier of the Parabolic Arc blog writes that critics of Russia's space program should remember that they bailed out the United States after the Columbia accident in 2003.

As a good partner, the United States must:
  • Support its Russian partner in any way it can in recovering from this accident.
  • Get its commercial cargo delivery capability up and running as soon and as safely as possible to relieve some of the pressure on the Russians in that area.
  • Stop screwing around with its next-generation human spaceflight program. Congress needs to fund commercial crew to the level requested by the Obama Administration. Legislators must let go of their dangerous delusion that that throwing billions of dollars at heavy-lift and the Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle while starving commercial crew is a sound idea. It will not shorten the human spaceflight gap. All it will do is put greater pressure on the Russians and leave station crews with no redundant access to orbit. And that’s not good for anyone.
We owe this to our brave astronauts and cosmonauts who risk their lives pushing back the boundaries of space. We owe this to our Russian partners who helped to save the space station from cancellation in the 1990s and who kept it operating after the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

UPDATE August 25, 2011 6:15 AM EDTFlorida Today updates its initial report on the Progress 44 loss.

A Russian rocket failure Wednesday likely will delay the first post-shuttle era launch of astronauts to the International Space Station and also could force a temporary reduction in the number of people living aboard the outpost.

American astronaut Ron Garan and two Russian cosmonauts likely will extend six-month tours of duty at the space station rather than return to Earth as planned on Sept. 8. The planned Sept. 21 launch from Kazakhstan of a new station crew that includes U.S. astronaut Dan Burbank faces an indefinite delay while a Russian commission investigates the Soyuz rocket failure and the loss of an unmanned Progress supply ship.

Station staffing would be cut from six to three if Russia cannot return Soyuz rockets to flight by late October.

UPDATE August 26, 2011Florida Today reports on members of Congress demanding NASA accelerate SLS development even though it has nothing to do with the ISS:

As Russia launched an investigation Thursday into this week's explosive Soyuz rocket crash that destroyed supplies bound for the International Space Station, U.S. legislators urged NASA to speed development of new American spacecraft to replace retired shuttles.

Two U.S. senators and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives said the Soyuz failure underscores the need to fund development of new U.S. spacecraft. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., seized an opportunity to push NASA to develop a heavy-lift launch vehicle.

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