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Botched Russian cargo launch bumps station crew rotation flights

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
May 13, 2015, 1:39 UTC

Sen—Launch of the next crew to the International Space Station, slated for later this month, is being postponed to late July while engineers assess a rocket problem believed to be responsible for last month’s botched Progress cargo mission, the Russian space agency Roscosmos said Tuesday.

An investigation into the April 28 launch of the Progress-59 mission continues, though preliminary results point to a problem with the third stage of its Soyuz launcher.

The capsule, loaded with more than three tons of food, fuel and supplies for the International Space Station, blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Flight controllers lost contact with the ship about nine minutes later after reached its preliminary orbit.

The orbit, however, turned out to be 20 kilometers below the intended altitude, the result of an unintended separation of the third stage, a translation of a statement by Roscosmos shows.

Investigators noted “two consecutive events associated with depressurization … of the third stage engine’s oxidizer tank and then the fuel tank,” Roscosmos said.

A final report on the accident is expected on May 22, Roscosmos said.

The failed Progress cargo ship re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean at 10:04 p.m. EDT May 8 (0204 UTC May 9) and burned up.

Meanwhile, the launch of the next crew to the station, slated for May 26, is being delayed to late July so engineers can make sure the problem that doomed the Progress flight won’t surface during the Soyuz rocket’s ride to put the crew capsule into orbit.

The rocket used to launch the Progress capsule was a Soyuz 2.1a, which is a different version of the Soyuz-FG rocket currently used for manned launches.

Postponing the next crew’s launch, in turn, will keep the current station crew in orbit until at least early June, NASA and Roscosmos said.

Station commander Terry Virts, Italian astronaut Samatha Cristoforetti and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov were scheduled to leave the station Wednesday, wrapping up a five and a half month mission.

It is not yet known how the station crew rotation delay will impact later flights, including the launch of singer and aspiring space tourist Sarah Brightman, who is hitching a ride to the station during a crew handover flight that had been targeted for September.