A Russian Soyuz-U rocket failed earlier today, causing a Progress freighter bound for the International Space Station to crash into eastern Russia. Media reports indicate that the third stage shut down prematurely.
At a press conference, NASA ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini said that the failure would not have a major impact for the time being on operations at the space station, which was resupplied last month by the space shuttle Atlantis. He said the station could probably last until early next year without further resupply.
Crew rotation is another matter. Three crew members are set to return to Earth on Sept. 8, with a replacement crew being launched aboard a Soyuz FG rocket two weeks later. Suffredini said the current crew could stay up longer, possibly until late October, to give the Russians more time to sort out the problems with the launcher. If necessary, a three-person crew could operate the space station, although they would get little scientific research done.
The Soyuz U and FG variants have very similar third stages, Suffredini said. The Russians will suspend Soyuz launches until the cause of the launch failure is determined and any fixes are made.
Sufferdini said that Russian reports indicate that the rocket failed about 325 seconds into flight, shortly after the third stage ignited. The vehicle crashed into the ground in Eastern Russia.
Aside from supplies and crew rotation, a far bigger question is the reliability of Russian rockets. The nation has suffered four launch failures in less than nine months. All four failures involved upper stages.