A previous version of this article misstated the former affiliation of James Oberg. He worked at NASA mission control as a private contractor, not a NASA employee. In addition, the article said that the number of Soyuz spacecraft under order from a Russian company has recently doubled to 10 annually. The doubled order includes Soyuz crew transports and Progress cargo ships.
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Perilous Landings by Soyuz Worry NASA
Gerstenmaier said NASA does not expect to get word back on what might have happened until August or September. The United States has entered into a $719 million contract with the Russians for crew and cargo transport services to the space station from 2007 to 2011, and is now negotiating a second long-term transport contract.
The Russian company that makes the Soyuz, the Korolev Rocket and Space Corp. Energia in Moscow, is having difficulty attracting and retaining skilled aerospace workers, a problem that has been widely discussed and lamented in Russia. The company has historically produced four or five single-use Soyuz capsules a year, but it now must manufacture nine or 10 a year to make up for the 2010 retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet.
"The companies talk about this all the time -- about how young Russians want to go into banking or sales, where the pay is higher," said Oberg, the former NASA official. "They see this as a real threat to their industry."
The Soyuz capsules are not reusable, although some sensitive electronic docking mechanisms have been reconditioned and sent back up for use. With the retirement of the space shuttles, however, there will no longer be any way to return the mechanisms to Earth, so each one will have to be manufactured new.
Compounding NASA's worries, the upper stage of Russia's Proton rocket -- used successfully for decades to launch satellites into orbit -- has failed three times in the past two years. As a result, expensive Arab, Japanese and American communication satellites did not make it into orbit. The rocket is made by a different company, Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, which has also complained that it cannot attract and keep the necessary workforce.
The earlier Soyuz problem, in October, also included a steep ballistic landing that the Russians ultimately concluded was caused by a corroded cable to a computer. Oberg said the Russians told NASA about the problem, and American astronaut Whitson was informed as well. But neither the American public nor, it appears, Congress, were told of the problem, he said.
Whitson has described the descent as "pretty, pretty dramatic."
While NASA and Russian officials said that none of the three-member crew was in immediate danger, space station program director Michael Suffredini has acknowledged that several small ground fires that started near where the Soyuz touched down appeared to have been caused somehow by the landing.