Space Station Relief

Russian rockets carry a crew to the International Space Station just in time

Nov 14, 2011 | By Joe Levit

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft with a three-member team in tow blasted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Monday morning. The rocket is bound for the International Space Station (ISS), carrying Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin and NASA astronaut Dan Burbank.

The trip will take two days. The crew will replace a three-member team that is already aboard the ISS, a giant space lab in the sky. Both Russians are space rookies, but Burbank has been in space before. Because of his experience, Burbank will take over command of the ISS once he arrives.

A Delayed Blastoff

The launch followed a few months of uncertainty about the future of the ISS. When the U.S. retired its entire fleet of space shuttles in July, the world would rely upon Russian rockets to keep the base in space stocked with food, fuel and crew members.

That plan proved difficult. In August, the unmanned Russian cargo spaceship Progress crashed in eastern Siberia. The cargo ship was supposed to carry three tons of food and fuel to the space station.

The lost resources were not the true problem. The big concern was that the crash might serve as a warning about the safety of the Russian booster rockets, which are also used to launch spacecraft carrying people into space. It was a realistic concern because Russia has suffered a few launch failures recently.

Last December, Russia lost three navigation satellites when a rocket carrying them did not reach orbit. Russia also lost a military satellite in February, and the launch of a telecommunications satellite did not go as planned in August.

The latest launch had been delayed for two months because of these issues. NASA was worried that the ISS might need to be abandoned for the first time in almost 11 years of service if the new crew could not be sent there before the remaining three space station members would need to leave on November 21.

The Flaw Is Fixed

After Russian space officials figured out that the Progress launch failure was due to a manufacturing flaw, they recalled all Soyuz rockets to closely inspect them. After the inspection, they tried again. They successfully launched a new Progress ship last month. That cleared the way for the new crew to be sent to the ISS.

The crew itself said they felt safe with the Soyuz rockets, which have been in use for more than 40 years. "We haveā€¦full confidence in our technology," said Shkaplerov.

Another launch is planned for December. That trip will also transport three team members, bringing the ISS back up to its normal total of a six-person crew.