Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held a hearing to review the findings of the Soyuz launch vehicle failure investigation in the wake of the recent crash of an unmanned Russian space vehicle called Progress, and the impacts that a short-term loss of crew access has on the safe operation and utilization of the International Space Station (ISS).
Members questioned an expert panel of witnesses on the status of the accident investigation, recertification and return-to-flight plans, and the implications of de-crewing the ISS.
The hearing also highlighted the importance of ensuring America’s strategic access to space and to the ISS.
“The Progress launch vehicle is very similar to those used to carry astronauts in a Soyuz capsule to ISS, and for at least the next five years, the Soyuz launch system and crew capsule is the only means of ferrying astronauts to and from station,” said Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS). “It’s perhaps an ugly coincidence that one month following the Shuttle’s final flight, the Progress accident occurred, forcing Roscosmos and its supplier-base to reexamine their designs and quality assurance programs to account for the third stage failure.”
On August 24, 2011, the Progress vehicle carrying supplies to the ISS crashed because of a malfunction to its third stage booster.
As a result, use of the Soyuz launch vehicle for astronaut transportation to the ISS has been suspended until the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) completes its failure investigation, and the international partners reach agreement on recertification and return-to-flight plans.
Mr. William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission, told the Committee that NASA is satisfied the cause of the August crash was, as the Russians have said, contamination of a fuel line that evaded a quality inspection.
Vice Admiral Joseph Dyer, Chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), explained that it was significant that the cause of the failure was not a design flaw that would require lengthy re-design and recertification effort. He also characterized safety concerns resulting from the potential disruption of Soyuz transport capability. He said that the “risks are mitigated given the ability to position the station in a higher orbit (and thereby buying time to find a solution) and the nominal ability to control station stability from the ground.”
Regarding ASAP’s safety analysis of Soyuz after the crash, Vice Admiral Dyer spoke highly of NASA’s partnership with Russia. Dyer said that “the Russians have been forthcoming with the engineering analysis, safety and mission assurance information related to the efforts to return Soyuz to flight status.”
He said that “If the sharing and transparency is sustained, it should be sufficient to support a decision to resume the astronauts’ transport to the ISS.”
Lieutenant General Thomas Stafford, Chairman of the ISS Advisory Committee who has experience with the Russian program going back to the 1970’s also expressed confidence in the Russian return to flight effort. He also expressed a positive outlook about the future of the ISS, discussing how the Station can be maintained in orbit without a crew, while critical systems are controlled from the ground.
Stafford said, “It is my opinion that at this time adequate contingency plans are in place to ensure the continued safe operation of the ISS.”
Mr. William H. Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA, conceded, that “With the recent Progress launch failure, the ISS Partners began preparations for the possibility of short-term de-crewing the Station in the event that the Soyuz 27 crewmembers would have to leave the ISS untended on their return to Earth on November 22, 2011.”
He went on to say, “While the need to de-crew is not anticipated, NASA has a set of standard procedures in place for de-crewing the Station, should it become necessary to return the Soyuz currently on orbit before the next mission is flown.”