Progress Investigation Delays ISS Crew Return And Next Launch

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WASHINGTON — An ongoing investigation into a failed Progress mission to the International Space Station will postpone both the return of three people currently on the station and the launch of their replacements, NASA announced May 12.

American astronaut Terry Virts, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov were scheduled to depart the station in the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft docked there May 13. Their departure is now planned for early June, NASA announced.

Three new ISS crewmembers — American astronaut Kjell Lindgren, Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui, and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko — had been scheduled to launch on the Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft May 26. That launch is now planned for late July, NASA said. Specific dates for both the crew return and crew launch will be announced “in the coming weeks,” the agency said in a May 12 statement.

The rescheduled crew missions are designed to accommodate an ongoing investigation by the Russian space agency Roscosmos into the failed Progress M-27M mission to the ISS. The spacecraft started spinning out of control shortly after its April 28 launch, and controllers soon abandoned plans for the spacecraft to dock with the ISS. The Progress reentered without incident over the Pacific Ocean May 7.

In a May 12 statement, Roscosmos said the Progress launch proceeded normally until 526 seconds after liftoff, when there was an “unintended” separation of the spacecraft from the third stage of the Soyuz-2 rocket that launched it. That separation placed the Progress into an orbit with an apogee 40 kilometers higher than planned, while the Soyuz upper stage had an orbital apogee 20 kilometers lower than planned.

That unexpected separation, Roscosmos stated, appeared to be caused by the rupturing of propellant tanks on the upper stage. A final report into the accident is expected by May 22, the agency said.

Delaying the launch of the next crew until late July allows Roscosmos to move up the next Progress mission, previously scheduled for launch in early August, to early July. This would allow a test of any changes made to the launch vehicle because of the Progress accident prior to launching a crewed mission.

Delaying the return of Cristoforetti, Shkaplerov, and Virts minimizes the time the station will be down to a crew of three. NASA spokesman Dan Huot said May 12 that revised return date is related to the lifetime of the Soyuz spacecraft in orbit, which is approximately 200 days. The Soyuz TMA-15M launched Nov. 23, and would reach the 200-day threshold on June 11.

Besides Cristoforetti, Shkaplerov, and Virts, the other three people currently on the station are Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka and American astronaut Scott Kelly, who arrived on the station in March. Kelly and Kornienko will spend nearly a year on the ISS, while Padalka is scheduled to return in September. NASA said dates for future missions to the ISS are under review.