By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 12, 2008
Two consecutive chaotic and dangerous landings by Soyuz space capsules, including one with an American astronaut aboard, have NASA and space experts concerned about the spacecraft's reliability in ferrying astronauts to and from the international space station.
The worries are compounded by the fact that starting in 2010, when the space shuttle fleet will be retired, the United States will be entirely dependent on Russia's Soyuz capsules and rockets for transporting all astronauts and most cargo to the station -- until at least 2015.
The Soyuz has been a remarkably safe and reliable spacecraft for four decades, and the recent failures do not appear to have anything to do with new technology or new procedures. Rather, the two very similar reentry failures point to malfunctioning parts or faulty workmanship, space experts say.
"These are the same kinds of warning signs that occurred on the shuttles before the Columbia accident but were ignored," said James Oberg, a former NASA mission control specialist and now a media consultant on NASA developments. He recently wrote an article on the Soyuz problem for the magazine IEEE Spectrum based on, among other sources, internal NASA documents related to Soyuz.
"We're asking a lot of the Russians -- a doubling of their Soyuz production -- and we may well be overstraining their capacity," he said.
The Russian space agency is conducting an investigation into the failures that is supposed to be completed before the next Soyuz flight in the fall. But some are concerned that the inquiry into the first failure apparently came to the wrong conclusion about what caused the capsule to plunge to a ballistic landing that greatly increased the gravitational forces on, and danger to, the three astronauts aboard.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has asked NASA whether Americans will be on the investigative commission and, if not, whether they can be added. Nelson said he has not yet received an answer.
"This is very worrisome, and makes it all the more important to get new American spacecraft ready to fly sooner than 2015," he said. Nelson and his colleagues in the House and Senate have sought an additional $2 billion over two years to speed design and production of NASA's new Orion and Ares systems -- which are being built to service the space station and carry astronauts to the moon and beyond-- but the White House has not supported the additional spending.
Adding to the concern, three usually dependable Russian Proton rockets, used to send satellites into orbit, have also failed in the past two years.
The most recent Soyuz emergency landing occurred April 19, nearly 300 miles from the intended landing site in Kazakhstan, and may have been caused by the failure of a bolt connecting the Soyuz capsule and an equipment module, causing it to disconnect improperly, Russian and American officials have said. A steep and very rough ballistic landing followed, reportedly subjecting the astronauts to more than eight times the force of gravity, almost twice the G-forces in a normal landing.
None of the astronauts was injured, including American Peggy A. Whitson, who was returning after six months of weightlessness on the space station. But the spacecraft lost communication during reentry and remained out of radio contact with Russian mission control for an hour, raising the specter of a crash landing.
NASA has emphasized the admirable safety record of the Soyuz system. Nonetheless, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, William H. Gerstenmaier, has said that no more Americans will fly on Soyuz until the problem is identified and fixed. Gerstenmaier, who was at the landing site in April and anxiously waited the hour before the crew contacted mission control on an emergency satellite phone, said the Russians were taking the investigation "very seriously."
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.