Monday, May 5, 2008

Houston May Have Another Problem

An international space crew's close call with disaster reentering the atmosphere in this Russian space capsule two weeks ago could complicate NASA's long-term plans.

Here's the issue: When the U.S. space shuttle fleet goes into retirement around 2010, the agency will be dependent on its Russian partners to provide access to the International Space Station -- just as NASA was when the shuttles were grounded for more than two and a half years after the 2003 Columbia accident. Since the next generation of U.S. spacecraft capable of ferrying crews to and from orbit won't begin flying until at least 2015, any questions about the reliability of Russia's hardware could threaten plans for keeping the space station staffed and operational.

These implications are getting a new round of press coverage and discussion now that U.S. Astronaut Peggy Whitson is publicly describing the frightening details of her April 19 return to Earth -- even if she is delivering those details with all of the casual cool of a "Right Stuff"-era space pioneer.

"I guess the old pilot's saying of 'any landing you can walk away from was a good one' probably applies here," Whitson told William Harwood of CBS News in an extended interview about the end of her 192-day mission as space station commander. (Scroll to 10:20 AM, 5/2/08, Update for a summary of the reentry and landing and Whitson's complete interview with Harwood, who is one of the greats of space reporting.)

A dangling propulsion module appears to have sent the Soyuz TMA-11 capsule into the intense heat of atmospheric reentry facing in the wrong direction. The capsule righted itself after the module belatedly separated. But the crew then had to endure a gravitationally difficult ballistic descent ("I could feel my face being pulled back and it was pretty hard to breathe," Whitson said). Mysterious smoke wafted through the cabin before the capsule finally landed nearly 300 miles off course. Baffled local Kazakhs made it to the crew before a Russian rescue team.

An investigation by Russian space authorities will determine the extent of the danger to the crew, which also included Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and South Korean engineer So-Yeon Yi.

Asked if her bumpy ride home raised any concerns about the dependence on the Russian vehicle, Whitson said the Soyuz "is a very reliable spacecraft" and expressed confidence in the Russian investigation. "But I also think, personally, that we want to minimize the gap between the time when we have to rely solely on any one vehicle. I think after Columbia, it was very important for us to have the Soyuz capability. I think we always need to be prepared to have more than one option to getting into space."

As a backup to the Russians, some have suggested that NASA team up with China, whose third human space mission is tentatively scheduled to lift off this fall. However, China's human-rated Shenzhou spacecraft is still new and relatively untested compared to the decades of flights logged by the Russian Soyuz. And China's military ambitions in space are a big worry in Washington, too. I looked at the state of the Chinese space program in my Feb. 3 column in CQ Weekly and at U.S. concerns about China's military space activities in an earlier article.

In this video clip posted by the Houston Chronicle, Whitson talks about the locals who greeted her and her crew mates at their unplanned landing site in Kazakhstan:

And a Chronicle graphic (PDF) illustrates what is known about the April 19 reentry.

(Soyuz TMA-11 photo above: NASA/Reuters/Pool)

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