Thoughts On Today’s Progress Crash

(Updated 08/31, 2011).

In a tweet, astronaut Leroy Chiao (@AstroDude) called today’s crash of the Russian cargo transport to the ISS a “big damn deal”. My take: no, it aint. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Just launch another one. (Better yet: always have at least another one on standby, preferably at a different launch site).

I know I am simplifying, but: the loss of Progress M-12M (44P) is the first loss after 43 successful supply flights to the ISS, and after a total of 134 successful flights of this vehicle. Nobody was hurt in the crash, and the launch complex and gantry remain fully intact. A failure rate of under 1% should be acceptable for unmanned ships. Even with occasional misfirings like this, a disposable launcher is still a lot cheaper than the shuttle.

To me, this demonstrates why unmanned transports remain the way to go. Had this been a manned shuttle, an accident would have meant a disastrous loss of life. And the shuttle fleet would have been grounded once again. Years would have to go by for the accident to be fully investigated, and for design and procedural changes to be worked out and implemented. Employing astronauts as cargo truck drivers was an absurd idea to begin with. (Wernher von Braun knew this before the shuttle was even flight ready — I wish NASA had listened).

By contrast, an unmanned supply ship is basically a throwaway device anyhow. Yes, it’s not nice to have rocket parts falling down somewhere. This can seriously spoil the day if you happen to be at the impact site. But flight routes and launch facilities can be chosen to minimize the risk of someone actually getting hurt. Basically, one can write off the vehicle as a loss and launch another one.

However Chiao is completely right about it being a huge blunder to rely on only one vehicle for ISS cargo. NASA made another mistake here. Delta IV and Atlas V should have been purposed for cargo flights a long time ago, but those vested in the shuttle project always understood how to derail such proposals. (Interestingly, the military made the right decision by abandoning the shuttle a long time ago; the military space program has completely switched to reliable throw-away rockets instead).

Fortunately, ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (launched on European Ariane V) is practically ready to assume full operations. The ATV happens to have three times the cargo capacity of Russia’s Progress.

And let’s not forget SpaceX. Its second test launch of the Dragon capsule is scheduled for November. Things went so well the first time around that the second flight has already been is expected to be cleared to go to the ISS.

This is all great news. We all know what happens when there is competition.

Still, the Progess crash spells potential trouble for the ISS. The reason points to another NASA blunder. For safety reasons, Soyuz capsules must remain docked to the ISS at all times. This is so that astronauts can evacuate in an emergency. But these capsules are only certified to remain reliable for 200 days, after which they must be used or replaced. Because the Soyuz launch vehicle (which also launches Progress supply ships) is now suspended pending the investigation, no new Soyuz ships can be launched at the moment. This means that the ISS may have to be evacuated, because the scheduled Soyuz replacements are disturbed.

Why is this a NASA blunder? Because NASA has failed to come up with an alternate return capsule before the shuttle’s retirement. (Projects have been in the works, but faced delay after delay as NASA was concentrating on keeping the shuttles spaceworthy. There were also proposals for emergency return vehicles, which could have been launched via shuttle or by disposable rockets, but NASA decided not to proceed with these programs).

So we arrive at the current status: No way for people to fly to the ISS or back at this time, except on Russian Soyuz vehicles! And these are grounded at the moment.

Update 2011-09-06:
It now appears that should the ISS really have to be evacuated, the SpaceX flight to the ISS might
have to be postponed, since docking Dragon with an unmanned station is not an option. Instead, an approach and flyby at the unmanned ISS would be conceivable, but SpaceX considers this to be a waste of time and money.

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