Could Russia leave US astronauts stranded in space?
A leaky Soyuz descent capsule means that astronauts aboard the International Space Station will have to wait another six weeks before returning home. And private resupply missions are not ready for prime time.
A botched pressure test of a Russian space capsule slated to launch the next crew to the International Space Station has forced NASA and its partners to delay the planned liftoff for more than a month.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Aboard the International Space Station
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The Russian Soyuz spacecraft launch was originally slated for March 29, but now is targeted for no earlier than May 15, NASA's International Space Station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters today (Feb. 2).
The Soyuz's crew capsule, one of three modules that make up the entire Soyuz TMA-04M vehicle, has been scrapped after an accident during testing caused it to spring a leak in one of its descent module's rocket thruster fuel tanks. Now Russia's main space contractor, RSC Energia, is readying the next spaceship on the line, though the issue will cause a lengthy delay.
"This particular event is very unfortunate, but you know this is a complicated business and things happen," Suffredini said. "To me this is not indicative of some overarching problem at the Energia corporation. I have every confidence that they'll figure out the cause of this and rectify it for the future." [Russia's Manned Soyuz Space Capsule Explained (Infographic)]
With the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet last year, Russia's three-person Soyuz space capsules are currently the only vehicle available to ferry American astronauts to and from the International Space Station. NASA plans to eventually use private U.S.-built commercial spacecraft to transport crews and cargo to the station, but those new vehicles are still years away from being ready.
Meanwhile, NASA is contemplating another delay — in this case, of the unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule's inaugural trip to deliver supplies to the space station. The private spacecraft was due to make its first test launch to the orbiting laboratory on Feb. 7, but Suffredini said the latest target date is March 20, and even that might be a stretch, as the vehicle still requires more testing and some minor fixes.
Space station hang time
The faulty Soyuz capsule was slated to carry NASA astronaut Joe Acaba and Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin up to the space station to begin long-duration stays.
However, because of the Soyuz issues, NASA and Russia have decided to extend the current crew's mission to keep the space station running smoothly. Those three were scheduled to return to Earth March 16, but now will come home April 30.
The delay is also likely to cause rippling setbacks in other planned launches and landings later this year.