WASHINGTON — Russian controllers have called off any attempt to dock an out-of-control Progress cargo spacecraft with the International Space Station, NASA announced April 29.

“Docking has been called off for the Progress 59 spacecraft,” NASA said in a brief statement early April 29, using its designation for the Progress M-27M spacecraft. “Russian flight controllers are continuing to assess the vehicle and what the plan going forward will be.”

The Progress, launched on a Soyuz-2 rocket early April 28, experienced problems almost immediately after reaching orbit. The spacecraft failed to deploy two antennas used by its rendezvous system, forcing controllers to abandon original plans for a docking six hours after launch. The spacecraft soon started spinning, and Russian media reported efforts to contact the spacecraft early April 29 failed.

Progress 59
Progress 59 before launch. Credit: RSC Energia

In a statement April 28, the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center reported tracking 44 objects, presumably debris of some kind, in the vicinity of the Progress and the Soyuz upper stage. The Air Force said it could not determine if the debris was from the Progress or the upper stage.

With the docking called off, the Progress will likely re-enter Earth’s atmosphere some time in the next few weeks. Progress spacecraft typically end their missions by controlled de-orbit over the South Pacific, but a space industry source told the Russian news service TASS April 29 that such a deliberate re-entry was “impossible” given the spacecraft’s current condition.

The Progress was carrying more than 2,750 kilograms of supplies for the ISS, including fuel, water and equipment. NASA said April 28 that none of the supplies are considered critical for operation of the station, including some spare parts and crew clothing that NASA included on the Russian spacecraft.

The loss of the Progress should not have a near-term effect on station operations. NASA said April 29 that both the Russian and American segments of the station “continue to operate normally and are adequately supplied well beyond the next planned resupply flight.”

NASA documents presented at a meeting of a NASA Advisory Council committee April 8 showed that, with the supplies provided by a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft that arrived at the station in mid-April, the station would exhaust its supplies of food Sept. 5. The station would also run out of solid waste containers Sept. 2.

Progress 59 during launch
Progress 59 during launch. Credit: NASA

The station is primarily dependent on the Progress and Dragon spacecraft to transport supplies given the retirement of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle after its fifth launch last year and the infrequent use of Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV). A fifth cargo vehicle, Orbital ATK’s Cygnus, has been unavailable since a Cygnus was destroyed in an Antares launch failure last October.

Current ISS manifests include three more Dragon launches scheduled for 2015: on June 19, Sept. 2 and Dec. 5. An HTV is scheduled to launch Aug. 17 and Cygnus will return to flight with a launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket Nov. 19.

That manifest, last updated prior to the April 28 Progress launch, included two more Progress missions in 2015, scheduled for launch Aug. 6 and Oct. 22.


Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...