Progress Failure Points to Russian Problems, ISS Vulnerabilities

The Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft lands safely in late 2010. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

A few quick thoughts about today’s Progress failure. Russian vehicles and launchers remain highly reliable. Thanks to careful contingency planning, the space station has plenty of supplies. The International Space Station crew is perfectly safe. And there’s every reason to believe the Russians will quickly determine what went wrong and fix it.

That being said….

  • Russia has experienced four launch failures in less than nine months, indicating systemic quality control problems within the space industry.
  • A similar failure on a human Soyuz flight could injure or kill the crew.
  • It could be quite devastating to the ISS program because Soyuz is the only way to reach the station now that the space shuttle is retired.
  • The normally reliable Soyuz vehicle has suffered glitches in recent years that have resulted in bone-jarring ballistic re-entries, raising serious questions about safety and quality control.
  • Back in March after the first two launch failures, I argued that the Russians were heading for a launch rate this year that was unsustainable. That appears to have been born out.
  • Although Roscosmos’ budget has risen, so has the number of projects on its plate, including new launchers, human spacecraft, a new spaceport and providing sole human access to ISS.
  •  Roscosmos has been heavily criticized this year by high government officials for launch failures, severe delays in delivering spacecraft, and other serious problems.
  • Roscosmos Head Anatoly Perminov lost his job earlier this year over these shortcomings.
  • Roscosmos’s current leader, Vladimir Popovkin, is now on the hot seat and is under pressure to lower his space agency’s emphasis on human spaceflight.

In short, the Russian space program is under serious strain, and the results have begun to show over the past year. They need to get themselves together, reevaluate their program, and fix their problems.

As a good partner, the United States must:

  • Support its Russian partner in any way it can in recovering from this accident.
  • Get its commercial cargo delivery capability up and running as soon and as safely as possible to relieve some of the pressure on the Russian in that area.
  • Stop screwing around with its next-generation human spaceflight program. Congress needs to fund commercial crew to the level requested by the Obama Administration. Legislators must to let go of their dangerous delusion that throwing billions of dollars at heavy-lift and the Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle while starving commercial crew is a sound idea. It will not shorten the human spaceflight gap. All it will do it put greater pressure on the Russians and leave station crews with no redundant access to orbit. And that’s not good for anyone.

We owe this to our brave astronauts and cosmonauts who risk their lives pushing back the boundaries of space. We owe this to our Russian partners who helped to save the space station from cancellation in the 1990s and who kept it operating after the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.