By MARCIA DUNN and JIM HEINTZ, Associated Press
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A Russian space station supply ship crashed with a thunderous boom into Siberia minutes after launch Wednesday, rattling NASA and others in this new era without any shuttles to bail out the orbiting outpost.
The rocket failed barely a month after NASA’s final space shuttle flight.
While the International Space Station has more than enough supplies, the accident threatens to delay the launch of the next crew, just one month away. That’s because the upper stage of the unmanned Soyuz rocket that failed is similar to the ones used to launch astronauts to the station.
In addition, three of the six space station residents who are due to return to Earth in two weeks might end up staying longer. NASA wants a full staff to keep research going. The astronauts were just beginning to spend more time on scientific experiments, now that the station is complete.
The Soyuz rocket soared right on time from Kazakhstan, and everything seemed to be going perfectly until just over five minutes into the flight. The third-stage ignited, but the rocket commanded the engine to shut down because of a problem, said NASA’s space station program manager, Mike Suffredini.
All contact with the spacecraft was lost. Russian space officials declared it a total failure after reports of wreckage falling with a deafening roar in a remote area of Siberia.
“The explosion was so strong that for 100 kilometers (60 miles) glass almost flew out of the windows,” Alexander Borisov, head of the Choisky region in Russia’s Altai province, was quoted by state news agency RIA Novosti as saying.
Shuttle Atlantis’ final mission in July left the space station with a year’s worth of provisions.
Without the shuttles, NASA now is counting on Russia, Europe and Japan, as well as private U.S. businesses, to keep the station stocked. The Russians had 3 tons of supplies aboard the Progress ship that was destroyed. And it’s the Russians who will be transporting astronauts back and forth until U.S. private industry can pick up the human load.
NASA and its international partners want to keep the space station running until at least 2020.
At a news briefing, Suffredini said the Sept. 22 launch of a new three-man crew — one American and two Russians — may need to be delayed, depending on how the accident investigation goes.
They are supposed to replace American Ronald Garan Jr. and Russians Andrey Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyaev who have been on the space station since April and are due to return to Earth on Sept. 8. Their medical status will be taken into account, as well as their exposure to cosmic radiation, before any decision is made to keep them in orbit an extra month or two, Suffredini said.
Their Soyuz capsule for the ride home, which they launched in, is docked to the space station and can remain safely in orbit for up to seven months. That’s the length of the longest U.S. space mission to date. The world endurance record — well over a year — belongs to a Russian.
Suffredini acknowledged it would be nice to have the space shuttles still flying as a backup measure, but they wouldn’t be rushing to launch one anyway, Suffredini said.
“Logistically, we’re in really good shape,” he said three hours after the accident.
“We’ve always known this was a risk, and I very much expect that we’ll, together with our Russian colleagues, sort out the anomaly and get comfortable with the next flight.”
Suffredini was in his office at Johnson Space Center in Houston, awaiting email confirmation that the cargo ship safely had reached orbit. That message never came. Instead, “phones started ringing and emails started pouring in” saying something had gone wrong, he said.
It was the 44th launch of a Progress supply ship to the space station — and the first failure in the nearly 13-year life of the complex. The spacemen were notified promptly of the accident; almost assuredly, the lost vessel contained notes and gifts from their wives and children, as well as special treats like fresh food.
Another Russian supply ship is due to launch in late October. A European freighter is scheduled to blast off with supplies in March, and a Japanese one in May. The space station easily could go until then, Suffredini said.
A demonstration flight of the first commercial resupply craft, meanwhile, is due to blast off from Cape Canaveral at the end of November. Space Explorations Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, will have its Dragon capsule dock with the space station; only nonessential cargo will be on board.
There was no one-of-a-kind equipment aboard the destroyed Progress, Suffredini said. More than half the load was water, oxygen and fuel.
Suffredini said it’s unfortunate the space shuttles retired before these commercial cargo runs were in full swing. But given the limited amount of money available, the decision was made for NASA to concentrate on the next step in exploration — trips by astronauts to an asteroid and Mars.
That’s why one extra resupply mission by Atlantis was added before the shuttle program ended, Suffredini noted, just in case of launch failures or delays.
Jim Heintz reported from Moscow.