Russian cargo ship breaks apart after launch en route to space station

The Russian cargo ship broke apart six minutes into flight meant to deliver food and fuel to the crew of the International Space Station. 

Roscosmos/ Handout via Reuters
A Russian Progress MS-04 space cargo ship with food and supplies for the International Space Station blasts off from the launch pad at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, on December 1, 2016.

Astronauts stationed at the International Space Station will have to wait a little longer for new supplies, after a Russian rocket carrying a load of cargo to the ISS was destroyed after takeoff on Thursday.

Russia currently runs the only space program with the capacity to carry astronauts to the ISS, although other countries, including the United States, have the capacity to send cargo. The rocket that took off on Thursday, however, was unmanned. 

Later on Thursday, Russia's Roscosmos space agency said that the astronauts currently aboard the ISS would have enough to get by.

“According to preliminary information, the contingency took place at an altitude of about 190 km over remote and unpopulated mountainous area of the Republic of Tyva. The most of cargo spacecraft fragments burned in the dense atmosphere,” Roscosmos said in a statement. “The State Commission is conducting analysis of the current contingency. The loss of the cargo ship will not affect the normal operations of the ISS and the life of the station crew.”

About six minutes into the rocket’s flight on Thursday, space agency officials lost contact with the craft, which was carrying about 2.6 tons of food, fuel, and other supplies, NPR reports.

Despite the crucial role Russian spacecraft play in the regular resupply and crew delivery trips to the ISS, the Russian space program is struggling financially, and plans to temporarily cut its ISS flight crew from three to two – a decision that might open up more room on shuttles for paying passengers.

Currently, the United States pays Russia $60 million per astronaut to send American ISS crewmembers to the space station, although private American spaceflight companies such as SpaceX are working on building the capacity to ferry humans to the ISS.

Private, US-based development could hurt Russia's space agency further, The Christian Science Monitor’s Lucy Schouten reported in August:

Boeing and SpaceX are currently developing the technology to send American astronauts to space from American soil, meaning the shuttling service – and the revenue it produced for Roscosmos – could soon end when NASA begins shuttling its own astronauts skyward using private, commercial spacecraft.

That loss of revenue coincides painfully with internal budget constraints for Russian space travel. Plummeting oil prices and Russia's military incursion to the Crimea forced officials to slash the space budget by 60 percent, meaning its 10-year budget now hits $20.5 billion. For comparison, that barely exceeds NASA's budget for a year, writes Jason Davis for the Planetary Society. The three-person launches from Kazakhstan will also drop from four to perhaps two times per year once NASA changes its delivery model.

Yet several of these private companies have had their own safety struggles, with a SpaceX rocket explosion taking place on a Florida launchpad this fall, and a famous Orbital ATK malfunction in 2014.

The next scheduled cargo launch to the ISS will be carried out by the Japanese in a little more than a week, according to NASA, whose website reports that the station is well-stocked for now. 

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