Russia's exclusive role ferrying astronauts from around the world to and from the International Space Station has been suspended pending an investigation into an aborted launch and emergency landing of the latest Soyuz mission.
U.S. and Russian space officials said late on October 11 that they will be unable to use the Soyuz rockets for manned missions again until they determine why one failed after blast-off and forced a dangerous emergency landing back to Earth for the space professionals on board.
Russian space agency Roskosmos said it has grounded the rockets which have provided exclusive access to the space station since 2011 until a probe determines what forced U.S. astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksei Ovchinin to make an emergency landing in Kazakhstan.
The three-stage Soyuz rocket suffered an unspecified failure of its second stage two minutes after launch. Russian news reports indicated that one of its four first-stage engines might have failed to jettison in sync with others, resulting in the second stage's shutdown and activating the automatic emergency rescue system.
Political leaders and space officials expressed relief that the emergency landing system, at least, worked without a hitch and landed the two on board safely after a very rough ride.
While Russian rockets have experienced an array of glitches in recent years, the latest mishap was the first to be experienced by a manned Soyuz space mission since 1983, when a crew narrowly escaped before a launchpad explosion.
The suspension of manned launches pending investigation could affect a string of planned launches and returns to Earth. The next Soyuz mission was scheduled for December 20, and was supposed to take a new three-person crew to the space station.
International Space Station Operations Integration Manager Kenny Todd told a press briefing in Houston late on October 11 that it's not clear how long the Soyuz operations will be grounded.
'If it's two months or six, I really can't speculate on that,' he said. 'The fact that this crew didn't get to orbit, we feel bad for them. But we have confidence that our Russian colleagues will figure out what's going on and we'll hopefully see Nick and Aleksei in orbit at the space station soon.'
The European Space Agency is making contingency plans for three current space station crew members -- German Alexander Gerst, American Serena Aunon-Chancellor, and Russian Sergei Prokopiev.
They all were scheduled to return to Earth in December, but may have to stay aboard the station longer than that. There is enough food for the crew to last several months as the station is regularly resupplied by unmanned Japanese and American spacecraft.
But Todd said NASA is dusting off its plans for operating the space station without a crew, just in case the Russian investigation drags into next year.
He said the current space station crew can stay on board only until January -- just a month beyond their scheduled mid-December return -- because their Soyuz capsule, which has been docked at the station since June, has limited battery life and is only good for about 200 days in orbit.
If the Russian rockets remain grounded until it's time for the crew to come home, flight controllers could operate the station without anyone on board, Todd said. It could operate like that for a long time, barring a major equipment failure, he said.
But it will need to be staffed again before private space companies SpaceX or Boeing launch their planned manned missions next year, Todd said.
Given that the space station is a $100 billion asset, he said, it needs to have someone on board for the arrival of the first commercial manned missions, for safety reasons.
NASA mothballed its Space Shuttle program in 2011, and since then has been paying Russia about $80 million for each trip ferrying a U.S. astronaut to the station.
The contract with Russia ends in late 2019, and the U.S. space agency has deals with the two American companies to step in at that point.
Sending astronauts to the $100 billion space station will be a first for a privately owned company.
Elon Musk's SpaceX will be using its Falcon 9 rockets. Since 2012, SpaceX has launched satellites for NASA, and has carried out 16 resupply missions to the space station.
An unmanned Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon capsule is scheduled for launch in January 2019, with a similar manned launch set for June 2019.
For Boeing, launches are set for March and August 2019.
Despite NASA's publicly expressed confidence about the effects of a suspension in Russian Soyuz launches, some space officials expressed concern privately that it could affect important scientific research which is being conducted on board the station, which serves as an orbiting laboratory in space.
Moreover, both SpaceX's and Boeing's rocket programs have both run into delays, as is often the case in the aerospace industry.
Any further delay of planned launches by SpaceX or Boeing could hold up the approval of their manned launch programs. This could mean that the first astronaut they would send into orbit would not depart until 2020 instead of 2019.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036