Earlier today a Soyuz rocket carrying a Progress spacecraft lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the 44th such cargo spacecraft launched by Russia in the ISS era. Unlike the previous 43, though, this one failed to reach orbit: an apparent failure in the Soyuz’s third stage caused the loss of the Progress as it plummeted back to Earth in a sparsely-populated region of Siberia. On board the Progress were 2.9 tons worth of food, water, and other supplies: nothing whose loss would cause immediate problems for station operations, given the existing store of supplies on the station. However, the Soyuz rocket will be grounded for some time—weeks, possibly months, depending on the nature of the failure and the corrective action required—which could delay other Progress missions and crew rotations, and possible reduce the station’s crew size temporarily from six to three.
The failure is a reminder that the Soyuz is the only way for crews to get to and from the ISS. (Even if the shuttle was still flying, the Soyuz is still the only existing vehicle that can serve as a “lifeboat” for station crews, so an extended hiatus in Soyuz launches would still pose a problem for ISS operations.) One member of Congress has seized on this dependence as evidence that the US should be doing more to develop alternate crew transportation systems. In a press release below (not yet posted on his web site), Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) says NASA should propose an “emergency transfer of funding” from other programs, including the Space Launch System, to accelerate the agency’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program (emphasis below in original):
“Today, Russia’s Soyuz launch vehicle failed to boost the Progress M-12M cargo ship into orbit to deliver needed supplies to the International Space Station. This failure should be a cause of grave concern, and a moment of reexamination of America’s space strategy,” said Rohrabacher.
“Today’s Russian rocket failure will interrupt ISS cargo deliveries, and could threaten crew transportation as well. NASA needs to conduct an investigation before another Soyuz spacecraft with new ISS crew members can be launched, and it is unknown how long such an investigation will take.”
“I hope this is a minor problem with a quick and simple fix,” said Rohrabacher. “But this episode underscores America’s need for reliable launch systems of its own to carry cargo and crew into space. The only way to achieve this goal is to place more emphasis on commercial cargo and crew systems currently being developed by American companies.
“We need to get on with the task of building affordable launch systems to meet our nation’s needs for access to low Earth orbit, instead of promoting grandiose concepts which keep us vulnerable in the short and medium terms. The most responsible course of action for the United States is to dramatically accelerate the commercial crew systems already under development.
“I am calling on General Bolden, the NASA Administrator, to propose an emergency transfer of funding from unobligated balances in other programs, including the Space Launch System, to NASA’s commercial crew initiative. Funding should be used to speed up the efforts of the four current industry partners to develop their systems and potentially expand the recent awards to include the best applicants for launch vehicle development.
“NASA could potentially transfer several hundred million dollars from this long term development concept, since the SLS project has not even started, to the more urgently needed systems that can launch astronauts to ISS, reliably and affordably. This transfer will boost the development of American controlled technology and greatly reduce our dependence on the Russians.”
Rep. Rohrabacher is a senior member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.