Soyuz Spacecraft's Short Landing Raises Concerns for Future Station Flights
The second off-target, ballistic Soyuz landing in a row raises a troubling prospect for the future of Americans in space aboard the International Space Station.
When the shuttle program shuts down in 2010, the U.S. will rely on the Russians to deliver crews to the space station. But if NASA deems the Soyuz spacecraft unreliable or dangerous, there is nothing to replace it for U.S. astronaut travel to the space station.
On Saturday, a Soyuz capsule carrying NASA's Peggy Whitson, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and South Korea spaceflight participant, So-Yeon Yi, had a technical problem and fell to Earth like a rock, landing some 260 miles off course. The landing came after a steeper-than normal re-entry caused the crew to endure dangerous forces up to 10 times that of gravity, twice the normal re-entry pressure.
No cause is apparent, and teams from NASA and the Russian space agency have yet to begin investigating the cause of the apparent re-entry system failure.
"It's going to take several days for them to get (the capsule) back to Moscow," said NASA spokesman Nicole Cloutier. "It does have a flight recorder."
A Soyuz spacecraft automatically makes a ballistic re-entry if its guidance systems fails. Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko confirmed that the craft automatically made the switch to the emergency re-entry system, but he could not say why.
"There was no action of the crew that led to this," Malenchenko said. "Time will tell what went wrong."
Though tough on the crew, a ballistic re-entry is relatively safe, said U.S. space station program manager Mike Suffredini. A similar re-entry affected the last Soyuz return in October 2007, which carried two cosmonauts and a Malaysian space tourist.
The cause could be easily found after an examination of the capsule's flight recorder.
"Of course, if it's related to the last problem, that'll add data," Suffredini said.
The Russians immediately promised an investigation. And so far there has been no talk of grounding the Soyuz fleet.
"It's still a functional spacecraft. The incidents don't rise to the level of requiring a stand down," said James Oberg, an authority on the Russian and Chinese launch systems and consultant for NBC News.
The Russians are preparing to increase their launch rate from two per year to four per year to provide for a six-person crew on the expanded space station in 2009. Oberg questioned whether the production increase is somehow contributing to more problems.
"Has doubling the production overstressed their production safety and quality?" he asked.
A ballistic landing also occurred on May 3, 2003. The most recent ballistic landing was in October 2007.
These incidents, coupled with a cabin leak on re-entry in October 2005, raise questions about the Soyuz' otherwise long reputation for reliability. A total failure of the Soyuz on Saturday would have been tragic on many levels.
The spacecraft carried beloved U.S. astronaut Whitson, the first woman station commander and holder of the U.S. record for the most time in space. The craft also carried revered cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, who has spent more than 500 days in space, and a South Korea spaceflight participant, whose $20 million trip was paid for by the South Korean government.
Aside from the loss of life, if a fatal flaw developed in the Soyuz spacecraft, the U.S. and Russia would have no other way to bring crews to and from the space station.
And if the Soyuz program were grounded, the shuttle program could not be extended beyond 2010, when NASA will divert its funding to the Constellation program -- a capsule designed to go the space station, to the moon and on to Mars.
"The decision is already behind us," said Wayne Hale, former shuttle program manager and now deputy associate NASA administrator.
Substantial funding increases would be necessary to revive the shuttle, a proposal neither President Bush nor any of the three presidential contenders supports.
"We have the parts we need on hand, with adequate spares to fly the manifest that's ahead of us, the next 11 flights," Hale said last week. "But beyond that, if you want to restart production (of the shuttle), you are probably too late."
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