UPDATED at 5:35 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON The Aug. 24 failure of a Russian Soyuz-U rocket carrying a Progress capsule filled with supplies for the international space station poses no immediate logistical threat to the well-stocked orbital outpost, according to a senior NASA official.

But Michael Suffredini, NASA’s space station program manager, noted that the Soyuz-U, which launches Progress cargo ships, is similar in design to the Soyuz-FG, a configuration used to launch crew-carrying Soyuz capsules. The third stage of those two rockets is “particularly similar,” he said.

Suffredini said a crewed Soyuz launch scheduled for September and a Soyuz cargo launch scheduled for October could be delayed as a result of the failure.

With NASA’s space shuttle fleet now retired, Russia’s Soyuz rockets and capsules are the only means of delivering crews to the space station. There are two international alternatives for delivering cargo, one operated by Europe and one by Japan, as well as two U.S. commercial systems in development and expected to enter service next year.

The Soyuz-U failure was the second straight mishap involving a Russian rocket. On Aug. 18, a Russian Proton rocket placed a telecommunications satellite into the wrong orbit.

The Soyuz-U’s third stage malfunctioned 325 seconds into the flight, according to an Aug. 24 press release from Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. The rocket, which over the years has been among the world’s most reliable, lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 9 a.m. EDT.

During an impromptu press conference from the Johnson Space Center in Houston about three hours after the launch, Suffredini said the rocket shut itself down when its on-board computers detected a problem with the third-stage engine.

 “Given the trajectory and the energy of the spacecraft at the time, the vehicle impacted in the Altai region of the Russian Federation,” Suffredini said. “And that, unfortunately, is about what we know today, because telemetry was lost shortly thereafter.”

According to a transmission to space station Commander AndreyBorisenko from the top Russian ground controller at Mission Control Moscow, communications with the rocket and cargo capsule were lost shortly after the launch went awry. NASA rebroadcast the Russian-language message, with an accompanying English translation, prior to its press conference.

“We attempted to contact the vehicle through every possible channel,” the Roscomos controller, Maxim Matuchen, said.

The Progress M-12M space freighter would have been the 44th to reach the space station. It was carrying 2.9 metric tons of cargo, including about 1.3 metric tons of dry goods — mostly consumables — with “water, fuel and gas” representing the rest of the payload, Suffredini said.

The supplies were bound for the Russian segment of the international space station, said Suffredini.

The loss does not pose an immediate logistical threat to space station operations. The final space shuttle mission, STS-135, dropped off an enormous shipment of consumables back in July.

“We’re in a good position, logistically, to withstand this loss of supplies,” Suffredini said. “The way we had done our logistics with the shuttle flight, we had put ourselves in a position to get to the end of the calendar year 2012.”  

A commission comprising Russian government and industry officials has been set up to investigate the launch failure, Roscosmos said on its website.

Suffredini said he expects NASA will have some visibility into that investigation.

Calls to the press service of Roscosmos in Moscow and to Soyuz maker TsSKB-Progress of Samara Aug. 24 were not returned.



Shakil contributed to this story from Moscow.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.