Loss of Progress
A Russian Progress cargo ship, one of the world’s most reliable spacecraft systems, failed about a week ago. Sometime between solar panel deployment and navigation antenna deployment, something went “snap” and left it tumbling in an unstable orbit where it had been delivered by its launcher. Progress was supposed to use its own thrusters to enter orbit with the International Space Station and dock with it to deliver supplies, new experiments, and other things. Unable to complete that final step, it was only a matter of time. Last night (May 7th, 2015 U.S. time) it reentered the atmosphere and disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean. On a personal note, I picked that it would die over Texas in @VaxHeadroom’s #SplashdownBingo contest on Twitter. Oh well, maybe next time. 🙂
People don’t ride on Progress, and no person was ever at risk from this accident…except for the very remote possibility of a piece of it falling on someone’s head). The Space Station’s cargo delivery routine has enough variability and overkill built into it to allow for mishaps such as this…rocket science is hard and everyone knows that. This delivery by the Progress spacecraft was important, and station operations will be impacted by its loss, but not critically.
A U.S. commercial cargo delivery spacecraft, Cygnus, was destroyed late last year when the Antares rocked carrying it failed five or so seconds after launch and exploded. These two losses put a temporary halt in the operation of both of those systems while the problems are found and corrected. This has placing added reliance on other launch and delivery providers. Progress has some systems in common with the spacecraft that astronauts and cosmonauts ride on, so it could cause delays to that schedule as well.
All of this only further highlights the need to have multiple launch providers supporting the International Space Station. The U.S. Congress has wanted to down-select to a single commercial provider for sending NASA astronauts to the ISS. They hope that this will result in a reliance on the NASA-owned Orion spacecraft (currently having trouble filling it’s launch manifest) for ISS visits.
Those who are doing this only seek to protect traditional launch industry providers and their components which are located in their home states which too overpriced and stagnant to compete in an open-market system. NASA has said repeatedly that they want multiple commercial providers to fill the ISS support transport role because they are getting out of the Space Station supply activities business, so that the very expensive Orion can focus on exploring the rest of the solar system. The fact that NASA currently pays Russia to launch our (and Japan’s and Canada’s) astronauts to the station on Soyuz, rivets home the fact that the traditional, big government ownership of single-provider routine spaceflight that we’ve used for fifty years cannot be relied upon for an expansive, routine space program.
Progress will fly again…probably late this year. Cygnus will fly again sooner, but on another provider’s rocket. The SpaceX Dragon will visit the station in June, maybe with a few Russian experiments on board. During all of this, the U.S. Government will fight over how these flights will go in the future from the U.S. end. U.S. citizen participation in this process will be critical in helping keep that Government from practicing stupid, self-serving politics regarding space policy and help assure a healthy, reliable system in the years to come.