No one would have dared predict that the first Russian rocket to be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) following the retirement of the US Space Shuttle this summer would be doomed to failure.
It is an ironic turn of events that means for the time being the ISS is currently flying with no means of replacing the astronauts and cosmonauts working on the recently completed orbiting outpost.
At the very least last week’s Russian rocket failure will likely delay the first post-Shuttle era launch of new crew members to the Station. And at worst it could mean a complete withdrawal of all crew before the year’s end if Russia is unable to resume manned flights of its Soyuz rocket.
Despite the delivery of important logistics by the final Space Shuttle mission in July, safety concerns with landing Soyuz capsules in the middle of winter could force the Space Station to fly unmanned beginning in November, according to Michael Suffredini, NASA's ISS programme manager.
Investigations started immediately into why the upper stage of a Soyuz-U booster carrying an unmanned Russian Progress supply ship malfunctioned and shut down five minutes and 20 seconds after launch from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.
Some 2.9 tons of supplies and equipment for the Space Station were lost as the Progress M-12M/44P spacecraft crashed back to Earth during what was ironically the first launch to the orbiting complex since the Space Shuttle was retired in July.
The supply train to the ISS is critical for supporting a full-time crew of six but for now the Station remains in good shape thanks to the deliveries by Atlantis in July.
The Soyuz-U upper stage is virtually identical to the third stage used by Russia’s manned Soyuz spacecraft, which was targeted to launch again on 22 September.
With two Soyuz crew launches and two Progress deliveries scheduled before the end of 2011, the failure is certain to disrupt plans to ferry new crews and cargo shipments to the ISS.
Three current crew members — Expedition 28 commander Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev and Ronald Garan — will have their return to Earth, which was scheduled for 8 September, postponed for several weeks to keep six people at the ISS for as long as possible.
But Garan and his two cosmonaut colleagues could only extend their stay until late October when they would have to return to Earth. The Soyuz spacecraft they will fly home in has an orbital life due to ‘expire’ around 22 October - which means the ship is certified by engineering teams as safe for the return flight to Earth until that date.
A departure at that point would leave just three people on the ISS until Soyuz launches can resume. A crew of three can maintain the outpost but science and research work would suffer.
The other half of the Station's six-person crew — NASA flight engineer Michael Fossum, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa — are supposed to return home on 16 November.
"The November crew has a little different issue," Suffredini said this week. "If we're not launching by then and we have to de-man the Space Station, we pretty much have to do that probably by about the middle of November."
That crew's Soyuz capsule, named Soyuz TMA-02M, blasted off June 7 and would need to land in late December or early January.
"One of our requirements is to land in daylight, and it has to be an hour from sunset or sunrise," Suffredini said. "On 19 November we reach that cutoff and we go dark."
The next daylight landing window opens in late December, but NASA and Russian officials will then be concerned about extreme winter weather conditions in the Soyuz landing zone on the steppes of Kazakhstan.
"The weather is severe out there in the winter time," Suffredini said. "So from a search and rescue standpoint, that's probably something we don't want to do. Even if it's within our requirements, we probably don't want to be landing two hours before sunset. If we had any problem at all, we would be searching for the crew in a blowing snow storm in the middle of night."
The Soyuz-U rocket has a good safety record over the past four decades of operations — 745 successful launches and 21 failures — and this is the first time there has been such a failure since construction of the Space Station started a decade ago.
With the United States' Shuttle fleet retirement last month, Russian Soyuz spacecraft are currently the only vehicles capable of flying astronauts to and from the Space Station. NASA is investing in the development of commercial ‘private’ space taxis, but those craft remain in development stage and are not estimated to be ready before 2015 or 2016.
Ken Kremer, who has reported on all of the last Space Shuttle flights to the ISS in recent years for Spaceflight magazine, said the loss of the Russian Progress highlighted the "utter folly" of the Shuttle programme shutdown.