Russian officials announced Monday that they would delay the launch of the next manned mission for the International Space Station (ISS), probably until November. The next launch had been scheduled for Sept. 22.
Russia wants more time to investigate the failure of its Progress 44 supply ship last week. It said it was grounding the entire Soyuz rocket fleet, after the Progress ship's third-stage rocket failed, and the craft burned up on reentry over Siberia Wednesday.
Without a space shuttle, NASA and the ISS are completely dependent on the Russian space program.
Russia has a relatively good record with the Soyuz rockets. NASA notes that as of August 2011, the Russian Space Agency has had 21 launch failures and 724 successes. But the Moscow Times observes that the Progress loss was Russia's second rocket failure in a week and the fourth since December.
The other recent losses have been mostly satellite launches. This was the first loss of a Progress resupply mission.
In Russia, the accident prompted some figure-pointing at the rocket supply chain, and at the government for underfunding its space program.
"There's a general consensus that a specialist in a space industry enterprise shouldn't be getting the salary of an ice cream vendor," Igor Lisov, a Russian space expert, told The Moscow Times. Lisov noted that the average engineer's salary is under 30,000 rubles – about $1,000 – per month.
Russia set up a commission Friday to investigate the cause of the Progress failure.
Prior to the Progress 44 crash, Russia has planned to launch four Soyuz rockets: two carrying new crews and two with unmanned resupply ships.
But NASA officials confirmed Monday that resolving the cause of the rocket failure is delaying the planned Sept. 8 return to earth of three of the six crew members on the ISS now. Currently, the crew can stay there until Sept. 19, said NASA ISS program manager Mike Suffredini. If the Soyuz isn't cleared to return them, then next return window is late October.
"I think we'll bring the crew home in September instead of late October," said Suffredini in a press conference. But NASA is prepared to run the space station without a crew, if need be.
He added that his Russian colleagues are "cautiously optimistic" they can at least keep a three-man crew on the ISS.
The Kyiv Post quotes a Russian space official as saying that there will only be two more launches this year. "Now, we are considering the launch of the first spaceship in mid-November and the second one in December," he said. The first will carry three crew members, and the second will be a supply ship.