Managers in charge of International Space Station say the massive orbiting laboratory and its residents can keep going despite Sunday’s failure of a SpaceX resupply launch, which destroyed a new docking adapter critical to NASA’s commercial crew program, a spacesuit, and a part to repair the lab’s water purification system.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, marking the commercial launcher’s first failure in 19 missions and destroying more than 4, 000 pounds of gear needed on the space station.
It was the third failure of a space station supply mission in eight months, extending a string of problems that contrasts with a nearly perfect launch record of flights to the complex from 1998 until 2014. All but one mission to assemble and resupply the space station reached the outpost in that time, a nearly 16-year period covering more than 150 launches.
“It’s a pretty important loss to us, ” said Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s human spaceflight division. “I don’t want to minimize the loss to us, but, again, from a macro-level standpoint, the crew is in no danger.”
Sunday’s loss will still have consequences for the space station, likely delaying or changing NASA’s plan to ready the complex to receive U.S. crew spaceships, cutting into research aboard the outpost and adding to the importance of Russian and Japanese resupply missions due for launch in the next two months.
First up will be the launch of Russia’s Progress M-28M cargo craft Friday — the first flight of the venerable supply vessel since a Progress capsule spun out of control after a botched separation from its Soyuz rocket in April.
Investigators traced the failure to a peculiarity in the stiffness of the connection between the Soyuz third stage and the Progress spacecraft, a problem that Russia’s space agency said is limited to Progress launches on the modernized version of the Soyuz booster flown in April.
The Progress mission set for launch on an older Soyuz rocket configuration at 0455 GMT (12:55 a.m. EDT) Friday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and NASA officials said they expect no delay in response to Sunday’s Falcon 9 mishap. Russia’s space agency on Monday confirmed on Twitter that the launch remained scheduled for Friday.
Russian managers moved up the Progress launch from August to July 3 to quickly replace the supplies lost on the Progress freighter earlier this year.
The Aug. 16 launch date for a Japanese HTV supply ship could be shifted to give NASA time to add time-critical cargo to the mission, Suffredini said. No such decision has been made, but Suffredini told reporters Sunday to expect adjustments in upcoming logistics missions.
“This is a big loss — I don’t want to underplay that — but I do want everyone to know that, as a program, we’re managing this in a way to keep us healthy, and we’ll pick ourselves up and get on to the next flight, and continue to do research on-board ISS, ” Suffredini said.
Since the retirement of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, space station managers have four ways to ship up supplies to the complex, and three of the cargo carriers are grounded, or are just coming back from failures.
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