Russia has grounded its Soyuz rockets after one of the unmanned craft crashed shortly after blast-off while carrying tonnes of cargo for the International Space Station (ISS), a space official said yesterday.
“A decision has been taken to halt the launch of Soyuz carrier rockets until the reasons for the accident become clear,” the unnamed Russian official told the Interfax news agency.
The accident on Wednesday has raised concerns over the reserves of the six crew members on board the station and clouded the future of an ISS program that relies almost exclusively on Russia following the retirement of US shuttles.
Both Russian and US space officials dispelled suggestions that the accident may prompt an emergency evacuation of the ISS crew.
Space officials from both sides said the team — which besides three Russians includes two US astronauts and an astronaut from Japan — had at least two months of supplies of food and other basics.
Russia’s immediate launch schedule was thrown into doubt on Wednesday when the Roskosmos space agency removed all reference to future missions from its official Web site.
The next manned flight to the ISS is scheduled for Sept. 22 and a cargo vessel with new supplies is due to take off on Oct. 28.
Both flights rely on various modifications of the Soyuz carrier rocket — a Soviet-era model whose importance has been magnified with the retirement of the US shuttle program this year.
Roskosmos said yesterday that it was fully committed to supplying the ISS with both cargo and crew despite the setback.
The agency said Roskosmos director Vladimir Popov held an emergency overnight meeting in which he requested “additional proposals on ways to provide support for the International Space Station and unconditionally meet” Russia’s commitments to it.
However, some in the Russian media said the fifth launch failure in the past nine months showed that the once-proud industry was entering a period of crisis.
“The series of launch accident points to a deep crisis,” the respected Kommersant business daily said on its front page. “More and more of Russia’s craft fail to reach orbit.”
Local officials said fragments of the craft crashed into Russia’s Siberian region of Altai on the border with Mongolia and China — a remote region of soaring mountains and poorly accessible by road.
“The explosion was so powerful it shattered windows nearly 100km away,” said the region’s Choya district head Alexander Borisov.
The Progress was the fourth failed launch of a capsule or satellite by Russia since December last year, when three satellites for its prized new GLONASS system crashed into the Pacific Ocean after launch.