The future of the International Space Station (ISS) became more secure on Sunday, October 30, 2011 when the Russian space agency, Rosocosmos carried out a successful launch of an unmanned Progress spacecraft. The 15,718 lb (7,130 kg) cargo ship carried its three tons of supplies into orbit and successfully deployed its solar arrays without incident. This launch confirms that the Soyuz-U launch vehicle is once again safe to carry the manned spacecraft needed to ferry crews to the ISS.
The Progress M-13M lifted into orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 10:11 GMT (16:11 Baikonur local time) and is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station on Wednesday, November 2nd.
After the spectacular failure and crash shortly after lift off of the Progress M-12M spacecraft on August 24, 2011, the future of the International Space Station was thrown into doubt. If the Soyuz-U booster proved to be unsafe, then not only the Progress, but the manned Soyuz spacecraft, which uses the same launch vehicle, would also have been ground. In such an event, the 15 partner nations that oversee the operation of the ISS would have faced the prospect of returning the current crew to Earth and mothballing the station. Sunday's launch, however, demonstrated that the Russian investigation commission had correctly determined that the cause of the August crash was a blocked fuel line leading to the gas generator in the Soyuz-U booster's third stage RD-0110 engine. This caused a loss of pressure in the gas generator, shutting the engine down, resulting in the crash.
"We congratulate our Russian colleagues on Sunday's successful launch of ISS Progress 45 (the NASA ID for the mission), and the spacecraft is on its way to the International Space Station," said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Pending the outcome of a series of flight readiness meetings in the coming weeks, this successful flight sets the stage for the next Soyuz launch, planned for mid-November. The December Soyuz mission will restore the space station crew size to six and continue normal crew rotations."
The success of Soyuz M-13M gives the green light for the November 14, 2011 launch of the manned Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft, which will ferry three astronauts to the station. With the resumption of regular flights to the ISS, the future of the program is no longer that of an empty craft operating under automatic systems and ground control. Crews can once again be relieved and the current undermanned condition of the station will be brought up to strength in a relatively short time. However, the crash and subsequent interruption of flights has served to highlight the risk of the station's dependence on the aging Soyuz and the need for a variety of more modern manned spacecraft to assure the ISS's continued operation.
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