Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Russian Mechanical Problems Delay Launches

Soyuz manned capsule in orbit in better days.

The Russian Soyuz TMA-04M was discovered through a test to have failed its ability to correctly pressurize. It was originally scheduled to have been the next manned Russian craft to travel to the ISS in March. Now, the Russians will have to delay that mission as they build a replacement. The next launch is now postponed until mid-April and may even reach back into May.

While this event does not impact the number of astronauts that can stay on board the ISS, it does bring up a point made by many space enthusiasts about the end of the shuttle program. As President Obama cancelled the Constellation program before the end of the series of shuttle retirements, many of us predicted there could be trouble relying on the Russians. Of course the first thing that happened was that the Russians took advantage of our weakness and promptly raised the taxi fares by $20 million per seat. Then to add insult to injury the Russians began declaring that perhaps the ISS should be a mostly Russian operation, since NASA had no way to replace astronauts or get supplies to the station. And congressman and pro-US human spaceflight enthusiasts fumed at the embarrassment of watching our government fumble with budgets (it's been over 1000 days since our Senate approved a budget- NASA has had to get by with less than they needed) and leadership.

Then suddenly the Russians began experiencing problems. Last year there were serious worries about accidents that could occur during the Soyuz landings, and then the Russians had to put a stop to all rocket launches while they searched for answers resulting from rocket failures. They then assured us that the problems were fixed.

Progress resupply rocket on pad.

Now we have another series of Russian failures that hold up the program. Not only the Soyuz seems to have problems, but the Proton rockets as well. A Proton-M rocket ready to carry the SES-4 communications satellite has been delayed a second time because of failures with either the avionics or an unspecified problem. Will this result in grounding Progress rockets? The World wants to know.

Phobos-Grunt probe readying for launch.

All of this latest trouble follows on the heels of the Phobos-Grunt disaster. That Russian Mars probe failed to leave Earth orbit and tumbled to a fiery re-entry this month. It was finally reported that before launch, problems with the probe's construction had led to more than a dozen welding repairs while the craft still had fueled tanks! As late as last week, Russian space leaders had even blamed US radar on causing the malfunctions while the craft launched to orbit. Now this week, we have the Russian space circus claiming it must have been cosmic radiation that affected the craft's avionics. At latest report, Russian investigators are blaming the problem on a cheap faulty counterfeit microchip, unable to withstand the rigors of outer space radiation. Some Russian engineers are quietly looking at the probability of internal problems with Russia's space manufacturing.

This causes NASA leaders untold headaches of course, but also deserves an appropriate "I told you so" response from those of us who warned about relying on the Russians for our space transportation.

Miss the shuttle yet?

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