Soyuz Failure Likely Delays SpaceX, Globalstar Launches

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UPDATED Sept. 15, 5:35 p.m. EDT

PARIS — The Aug. 24 failure of a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying an unmanned supply vehicle for the international space station will likely delay Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) long-planned launch of its own station cargo carrier, postpone the launch of Globalstar’s commercial mobile communications satellites and force Europe’s launch consortium to return two Soyuz rocket stages, now at Europe’s South American spaceport, to Russia for retesting, industry officials said.

The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, on Sept. 13 announced that the Soyuz vehicle, which at some 1,750 launches is the world’s most reliable rocket, would return to flight Oct. 30 with another attempt to deliver an unmanned Progress supply ship to the international space station.

A different Soyuz configuration, but one with enough similarities to the rocket that failed to be grounded as well, will then launch three astronauts to the station Nov. 14, according to a press release NASA issued Sept. 15 following a meeting of the Space Station Control Board. Another manned Soyuz carrying three astronauts will be launched Dec. 26, NASA said. While Roscosmos said Sept. 13 that the December Soyuz mission would be followed by another Progress supply mission on Jan. 26, NASA said the launch date is still to be determined.

SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., had been awaiting final NASA authorization to launch its Dragon unmanned station freighter to the station in late November.

That date now looks out of reach. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said that in addition to awaiting a reflight carrying a Progress supply vehicle, the SpaceX launch cannot occur before the second of the two manned Soyuz launches delivers its astronauts to the station.

Addressing the World Space Business Week conference here organized by Euroconsult, Shotwell said Sept. 13 it is the second of the planned Soyuz crews that has been trained in taking control of the Dragon capsule once it arrives at the station and attaching it to the orbital complex. She said the SpaceX flight also is scheduled to occur only after the next two Progress flights.

A NASA spokesman said there are ways to permit Dragon to launch without waiting for the second manned Soyuz.

“We have the capability to handle the rendezvous, grapple and berthing of SpaceX’s Dragon whenever they are able to launch their vehicle to the space station,” NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries said Sept. 15. “We have opportunities for training on the ground and in orbit for that activity.”

Mobile satellite services provider Globalstar of Covington, La., had planned to launch six of its second-generation satellites aboard a Soyuz rocket from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in October.

Anthony J. Navarra, president of Globalstar operations, said here Sept. 13 that the launch would be delayed for an undetermined amount of time, likely no more than several weeks. He said Globalstar remained optimistic that this launch, and the launch of a further six satellites planned for November or December, would occur this year.

Europe’s Arianespace consortium of Evry, France, is managing the Globalstar launches. Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said Sept. 13 that he expected the Globalstar delays to be no longer than about two weeks.

Arianespace also is planning to begin operating a Soyuz variant from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, with an inaugural launch Oct. 20 carrying two Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellites for the European Commission.

Le Gall said this inaugural Soyuz flight from the European facility will occur as scheduled as it will be of the Soyuz 2.1b variant, which does not use the same third-stage engine that caused the Aug. 24 failure.

Didier Faivre, director of navigation at the 19-nation European Space Agency (ESA), said in a Sept. 12 interview that Roscosmos already has authorized the Fregat upper stage, which will be used for the Galileo launch, to be filled with fuel at the European spaceport. Faivre said that because this stage must be launched within 90 days once it is fueled, the go-ahead is a sign that the Galileo version of Soyuz will face no delays related to the Aug. 24 failure.

Le Gall said that Arianespace will be returning two Soyuz third stages that arrived in French Guiana as part of the Soyuz 2.1a variant, whose engines are similar to the one that failed in the August launch. Le Gall said these two stages will be returned to Samara, Russia, for retesting and, if needed, corrective action. The Samara Space Center is the Soyuz prime contractor.