Cargo spacecraft loss delays astronaut return
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are spending a little more time there than initially planned. Following the recent loss of the Russian Progress 59 cargo ship, NASA and its partners in the station have agreed to reshuffle future launches based on preliminary investigations by the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos).
Space travel isn't just a matter of shooting rockets into space. It's a complex exercise in logistics that goes back to an army of subcontractors working to long lead times. As a result, the loss of a cargo shipment throws off future missions months in advance. It isn't simply a matter of lost freeze-dried shrimp cocktail, there's also knock on effects of delayed maintenance, and the problems of shuffling docking areas on the ISS.
The problem is complicated by suspicions that the loss of Progress 59 was due to damage caused by a malfunction with the Soyuz booster, which could affect later crew transfers that use the same launch system. Roscosmos is currently investigating the incident and will provide an update on May 22.
Meanwhile, future launches are being rescheduled. The exact dates have yet to be determined, but the return of NASA astronaut Terry Virts, ESA's (European Space Agency) Samantha Cristoforetti and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov has been moved back to early June. If this extends beyond June 6, Cristoforetti will break the women's space endurance record set by US astronaut Sunita Williams in 2007.
The Progress 60 cargo mission is scheduled to launch in July, followed that same month by a Soyuz spacecraft carrying the Expedition 44 crew. SpaceX's CRS-7 cargo mission carrying new docking adaptors is still set for June 19, but is also under review, as are station launches planned for later in the year.
Though the ISS carries a surplus of supplies, if the deficit caused by Progress 59's loss cannot be made up in the near future, the station's crew size may need to be temporarily reduced.
Launched on April 28 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Progress 59 was on a routine resupply mission to the ISS when it suffered a malfunction that prevented the deployment of navigational antennas. The spacecraft began to rotate, then to tumble out of control, eventually burning up on May 8 somewhere over the central Pacific Ocean.