Success ! Launch Video of Crucial Russian Rocket to ISS puts Human Flights back on Track

Video caption: Liftoff of unmanned Russian Progress craft atop Soyuz booster on Oct. 30, 2011 from Baikonur Cosmodrome. Credit: NASA TV/Roscosmos.
Photos and rocket rollout video below

The very future of the International Space Station was on the line this morning as the Russian Progress 45 cargo ship successfully launched this morning from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 6:11 a.m. EDT (4:11 p.m. Baikonur time) on Oct. 30, 2011, bound for the ISS.

Today’s (Oct. 30) blastoff of the Soyuz rocket booster that is used for both the Progress cargo resupply missions and the Soyuz manned capsules was the first since the failure of the third stage of the prior Progress 44 mission on August 24 which crashed in Siberia.

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The third stage is nearly identical for both the manned and unmanned versions of the normally highly reliable Soyuz booster rocket.

Today’s success therefore opens up the door to resumption of crewed flights to the ISS, which were grounded by Russia after the unexpected loss of the Progress 44 mission.

If this Progress flight had failed, the ISS would have had to be left in an uncrewed state for the first time since continuous manned occupation began more than 10 years ago and would have significantly increased the risk for survival of the ISS in the event of a major malfunction and no human presence on board to take swift corrective action.

Liftoff of Soyuz rocket with Progress 45 to ISS from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Credit:RIA Novosti

NASA issued the following statement from Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington, about the launch of the Progress 45 spacecraft.

“We congratulate our Russian colleagues on Sunday’s successful launch of ISS Progress 45, and the spacecraft is on its way to the International Space Station. Pending the outcome of a series of flight readiness meetings in the coming weeks, this successful flight sets the stage for the next Soyuz launch, planned for mid-November. The December Soyuz mission will restore the space station crew size to six and continue normal crew rotations.”

Progress 45 is carrying nearly 3 tons of supplies to the ISS, including food, water, clothing, spare parts, fuel, oxygen and science experiments for use by the resident crews.

The resupply vehicle achieved the desired preliminary orbit after the eight and one half minute climb to space and deployed its solar arrays and communications antennae’s.

After a two day chase, Progress 45 will automatically link up with the ISS at the Pirs Docking Compartment on Nov. 2 at 7:40 a.m (EDT) and deliver 1,653 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen and air, 926 pounds of water and 3,108 pounds of spare parts, experiment hardware and other supplies for the Expedition 29 crew.

Progress 45 atop Soyuz-U booster awaits liftoff from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Credit: Roscosmos

The successful launch sets the stage for the launch of the station’s next three residents on Nov. 13. NASA’s Dan Burbank and Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin will arrive at the station Nov. 16, joining NASA’s Mike Fossum, Russia’s Sergei Volkov and Japan’s Satoshi Furukawa for about six days before Fossum, Volkov and Furukawa return home.

Liftoff of Burbank’s crew was delayad from the original date on September 22 following the Progress failure in August. Because of the delayed Soyuz crew launch, the handover period from one crew to the next had to be cut short.

Since the forced retirement of the Space Shuttle, the US has absolutely no way to send human crews to orbit for several years to come at a minimum and is totally reliant on Russia.

The survival of the ISS with humans crews on board is therefore totally dependent on a fully functioning and reliable Soyuz rocket.


Video caption: Rollout of Soyuz rocket and Progress cargo craft to Baikonur launch pad.

Read Ken’s continuing features about Soyuz from South America here:
Video Duet – Soyuz Debut Blast off from the Amazon Jungle and Rockin’ Russian Rollout !
Historic 1st Launch of Legendary Soyuz from South America
Russian Soyuz Poised for 1st Blastoff from Europe’s New South American Spaceport

First Progress Launch Since Accident Looms Large for Space Station Program

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The first launch of a Russian resupply ship since the August failure and crash of the Progress/SoyuzU is scheduled for Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 6:11 a.m. EDT (10:11 GMT). The importance of a successful launch looms large for the future of the International Space Station.

“Because the previous Progress didn’t get to orbit, it is important this launch go as planned,” NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries told Universe Today. “The booster we use to launch the crews, while not identical, is very similar to the one used for Progress — in particular the third stage where the failure was identified, so we do look forward to our Russian partners having a successful launch on Sunday.”

If not, the space station faces the prospect of being de-crewed.


This first post-shuttle era launch of a Progress cargo ship abruptly ended at about six minutes into the flight on August 24, 2011 when an engine anomaly prompted a computer to shutdown an engine, just before the third stage of the Soyuz rocket ignited. The rocket and ship crashed to Earth in eastern Russia.

Progress 45 is now set to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sunday and hopefully deliver 2.8 tons of food, fuel and supplies to the space station crew members.

Progress M-12M cargo vehicle launches on August 24, 2011. The rocket eventually failed and the rocket and ship crashed. Credit: NASA TV.

If that launch goes as planned, that would allow the Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft carrying three new station crew members to launch in mid-November. Flight Engineers Dan Burbank, Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin are scheduled to join the current on-orbit crew of Commander Mike Fossum and Flight Engineers Satoshi Furukawa and Sergei Volkov on Nov. 16.

Fossum and his crew are due to end their stay at the station on Nov. 21, so if the Soyuz TMA-22 can’t launch before then, the ISS will be left crewless.

While the Soyuz rockets and Progress cargo ships have had a long history of successes, this one failure – coming just after the space shuttles were retired – has left the ability to get new crews to the space station in limbo. The Progress cargo ships launch on a Soyuz-U rocket, while the Soyuz crew capsules, — the Soyuz TMA — launches on a Soyuz-FG. The third stages of the two rockets are virtually identical.

A Russian commission investigating the Progress failure said the crash was caused by a malfunction in the rocket’s third stage engine gas generator. The commission the malfunction was the result of an accidental manufacturing flaw. The third stages of all Soyuz-type rockets have been changed out, and a Soyuz rocket did launch successfully on October 21 from the ESA’s new launch facility in French Guiana, carrying new GPS satellites.

The Soyuz-U rocket has had 745 successful launches and just 21 failures over nearly four decades. The Soyuz-FG has had 25 launches, all successful.

“Because of the failure and similarity of the launch vehicles, we have been performing a lot of preliminary planning and work to make sure that in the unlikely event the Progress were to have another problem,” Humphries said, “that we would be able to get the existing crew home safely and be able to operate the International Space Station and conduct research there without the crew on board.”

Humphries said the ISS team has identified many issues so that they would be capable of operating the space station almost indefinitely without a crew.

“Of course that is not the preference because it would have some impacts on our research,” he said. “But we are very confident that our Russian partners have done their due diligence and identified the root cause and taken the right steps to correct this and we are looking forward to having a good launch.”

Humphries said despite the challenges of working with potentially having to de-crew the ISS, the space station program and partnerships are still strong.

“The international partnerships we’ve developed with our colleagues in Russia, Canada, Japan and Euorpe are probably one the greatest achievements of the ISS program,” Humphries said. “We back each other up on a variety of operational and other fronts on a daily basis. For example, our Russian colleagues were instrumental in keeping the space station operational following the Columbia accident in 2003.”

The launch and also the Progress docking to the ISS will be carried live on NASA TV.

Video Duet – Soyuz Debut Blast off from the Amazon Jungle and Rockin’ Russian Rollout !

Watch the video of today’s debut lift off of a Russian Soyuz rocket from the edge of the Amazon jungle at the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana as it successfully carried the first two Galileo In-Orbit Validation satellites to space after an arduous 7 year struggle to mesh Russian and European technologies and cultures – a magnificent achievement that opens a wide realm of new commercial and science exploration possibilities to exploit space for humankind. Launch photos below and here.

Now have some real fun and enjoy this absolutely cool Rockin’ Russian music video showing a headless Soyuz rollout to the pad, an erection like you’ve never imagined and capping with the Galileo satellites. Guaranteed you’ve never seen struttin’ like this but will totally get the Soyuz experience in 2 minutes – give it a whirl. They never did it like this in Russia.

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“This historic first launch of a genuine European system like Galileo was performed by the legendary Russian launcher that was used for Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, a launcher that will, from now on, lift off from Europe’s Spaceport,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General of ESA.

“These two historical events are also symbols of cooperation: cooperation between ESA and Russia, with a strong essential contribution of France; and cooperation between ESA and the European Union, in a joint initiative with the EU”.

First Soyuz lift from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on 21 October 2011. Credits: ESA/CNES/ARIANESPACE - Optique Video du CSG, Service Optique
Soyuz inside the Mobile Launch Gantry after installation of Galileo satellites mounted inside Upper Composite. Credit: Claus Lippert/DLR

Read Ken’s continuing features about Soyuz from South America starting here:
Historic 1st Launch of Legendary Soyuz from South America
Russian Soyuz Poised for 1st Blastoff from Europe’s New South American Spaceport

Read Ken’s features about Russia’s upcoming Phobos-Grunt launch from Baikonur here:
Phobos-Grunt and Yinghou-1 Arrive at Baikonur Launch Site to tight Mars Deadline
Phobos-Grunt: The Mission Poster
Daring Russian Sample Return mission to Martian Moon Phobos aims for November Liftoff

Russian Soyuz Poised for 1st Blastoff from Europe’s New South American Spaceport

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A Russian Soyuz-2 rocket sits poised for its first ever blast off in less than 24 hours from a brand new launch pad built in the jungles of French Guiana, South America by the European Space Agency (ESA) .

The payload for the debut liftoff of the Soyuz ST-B booster consists of the first pair of operational Galilieo satellites, critical to Europe’s hopes for building an independent GPS navigation system in orbit.

Soyuz VS01, the first Soyuz flight from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, will lift off on 20 October 2011. The rocket will carry the first two satellites of Europe’s Galileo navigation system into orbit. Credit:ESA - S. Corvaja

The Soyuz VS01 mission is set to soar on Thursday, Oct. 20 at 6:34 a.m. EDT (1034 GMT ) from Europe’s new South American pad, specially built for the Soyuz rocket. The three stage rocket was rolled out 600 meters horizontally to the launch pad and vertically raised to its launch position.

Soyuz VS01 on launch pad. Soyuz VS01vehicle was rolled out horizontally on its erector from the preparation building to the launch zone and then raised into the vertical position. The ‘Upper Composite’, comprising the Fregat upper stage, payload and fairing, was also transferred and added onto the vehicle from above, completing the very first Soyuz on its launch pad at Europe’s Spaceport. Soyuz VS01 will lift off on 20 October 2011. The rocket will carry the first two satellites of Europe’s Galileo navigation system into orbit. Credit: ESA - S. Corvaja

The two Galileo satellites were mated to the Fregat-MT upper stage, enclosed inside their payload fairing and then hoisted atop the Soyuz rocket. They should seperate from the upper stage about 3.5 hous after launch.

Because French Guiana is so close to the equator, the Soyuz gains a significant boost in performance from 1.7 tons to 3 tons due to the Earth’s greater spin.

This marks the first time in history that the renowned Soyuz workhorse will blast off from outside of Kazakhstan or Russia and also the start of orbital construction of Europe’s constellation of 30 Gallileo satellites.

28 more of the navigation satellites, built by the EADS consortium based in Germany, will be lofted starting in 2012 aboard the medium class Soyuz rockets.

French Guiana is already home to Europe’s venerable Ariane rocket family and will soon expand further to include the new Vega rocket for smaller class satellites.

ESA will begin live streaming coverage starting about an hour before the planned launch time of 6:34 a.m. EDT (1034 GMT)

Soyuz VS01 poised for launch on Oct. 20, 2011. Credit: ESA - S. Corvaja

Russian Space Agency Sets Dates for Resuming Progress, Soyuz Launches

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The Russia space agency has set dates for resuming flights with the Progress and Soyuz spacecraft. After determining the cause of the failure and crash of a Soyuz-U rocket carrying a Progress cargo ship bound for the International Space Station last month, Roscomos said they will be resuming flights soon, and the next Soyuz-U Progress launch will be on Sunday, October 30, 2011. “It is planned to launch Progress cargo spaceships on October 30, 2011, and on January 26, 2012. Manned Soyuz-FG spaceships will be launched on November 12 and December 20, 2011,” the agency said on their website.

The commission that investigated the crash has “approved the schedule of preparation and launch of spacecraft … The schedule is based on the analysis of willingness to third propulsion launch vehicle and taking into account the implementation of all recommendations developed by the commission.”

The commission said the crash was caused by a malfunction in the rocket’s third stage engine gas generator, which they determined was the result of a manufacturing flaw, which was “accidental.”

Roscosmos said they are also consulting with NASA to “refine the work plans of the upcoming missions to the International Space Station.” NASA has not made a statement yet on the plans laid out today by the Russian space agency.

If all goes well with the October 30 Progress launch, it will be interesting to see if all parties agree to allow NASA Flight Engineer Dan Burbank, Soyuz Commander Anton Shkaplerov and Russian Flight Engineer Anatoly Ivanishin to climb on board a Soyuz flight less than two weeks later.

Meanwhile, two Soyuz ST space vehicles carrying satellites that are being prepared for launch from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana will have the third stages of their rockets changed out, according to a spokesman from the Arianespace launch service corporation and the Russian news service Itar-Tass.

The third stages of two rockets will be returned to Russia, and new stages will be delivered to Kourou.

A spokesman for the Russian Space Mission Control said the resumption of manned and cargo launches means the ISS won’t need to be evacuated.

“This means that the ISS will constantly operate in piloted mode, with astronauts onboard,” spokesman Valery Lyndin told AFP. “Crews will be changed as originally planned, only the schedule will be somewhat pushed back.”

The first three of the current crew of six on board the station are schedule to return to Earth on Friday. NASA TV will broadcast the return on September 15, as Expedition 28 Soyuz Commander Alexander Samokutyaev, NASA Flight Engineer Ron Garan and off-going station Commander Andrey Borisenko will undock from the station’s Poisk module to return to Earth in their Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft.

They are set to land on the southern region steppe of Kazakhstan near the town of Dzhezkazgan at 11:01 p.m. CDT on Sept. 15 (10:01 a.m. local time, Sept. 16). Their return was delayed a week due to the Aug. 24 Progress 44 crash.

Expedition 29 station Commander Mike Fossum of NASA, Russian Flight Engineer Sergei Volkov and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency Flight Engineer Satoshi Furukawa will remain aboard the complex to conduct research until their planned return to Earth in mid-November.

The schedule to launch three new Expedition 29 crew members, is under review as NASA and its international partners assess the readiness to resume Soyuz launches.

Sources: Roscosmos, PhysOrg, Ciudad Futura (link for lead image)

Progress Crash Investigation Update

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The Russian space agency has provided an update on the investigation into the August 24 failure of a Soyuz rocket engine carrying a Progress resupply ship to the International Space Station. On August 30 — less than a week after the mishap – investigators for Roscosmos said the crash was caused by a malfunction in the rocket’s third stage engine gas generator. They now say the malfunction was the result of a manufacturing flaw, which was “accidental.”

This update is encouraging news, and means a decreased likelihood of having to leave the ISS unmanned.

From the commission’s report (translated):

On the basis of analyzing the behavior of the parameters characterizing the operation of the propulsion system the third stage, and results telemetry data it is concluded that reducing consumption of fuel in the gas generator due to contamination tract of its submission. This led to a breach of working conditions and reduce the engine parameters, it shut down on command “Emergency engine shutdown.”

Commission members concluded that this new manufacturing defect is random. However, the decision on his skills as a unit, should be taken only after cross-checking and follow-up of a special program just grazed manufactured propulsion.

A thorough check of all similar rocket engines will begin. The emergency commission to investigate the issue, led by Anatoly Koroteev, head of the Russian Keldysh science research institute on rockets, also recommended tightening quality controls at the rocket-manufacturing plant, and recommended adding surveillance cameras in the plant.

The space agency said future Soyuz launches will occur depending on the engines’ condition, but didn’t offer a specific schedule.

At Kennedy Space Center for the launch f the GRAIL mission, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said he is confident the fixes and checks will be done in time so that the ISS will not have to go unmanned. “We’re getting to the point where we’re going to satisfy ourselves that we can launch an unmanned vehicle to demonstrate that Soyuz is still okay, and then we’ll fly the crew up on a normal Soyuz mission later this fall,” Bolden, a former shuttle pilot and mission commander, said in an article in Florida Today.

“So the possibility of de-manning station is always something you think about, but it’s not something that is high on my list of concerns right now, because we don’t feel that is something that we’re going to have to do.”

At a press briefing last week, NASA ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini said that two Soyuz-family unmanned rockets are scheduled to launch soon, which may provide a chance to test any fixes on unmanned launches before attempting a manned launch. A commercial Soyuz to launch a mobile communications satellites is scheduled on Oct. 8, and the Russians may launch the Progress resupply ship that is currently scheduled for October 26 a few weeks earlier in order to have another unmanned launch to study the problem.

The Progress cargo ships launch on a Soyuz-U rocket, while the Soyuz crew capsules, the Soyuz TMA launches on a Soyuz-FG. The third stages of the two rockets are virtually identical. The Soyuz-U rocket has had 745 successful launches and just 21 failures over nearly four decades. The Soyuz-FG has had 25 launches, all successful.
With NASA’s space shuttles retired as of July, Soyuz is the only means of getting astronauts to and from the space station.

Cargo can be brought by European and Japanese spacecraft, and SpaceX is scheduled for a demonstration cargo run late this year. Both NASA and Roscosmos confirmed that the astronauts are well-stocked with supplies on the space station, but the lifetime of the Soyuz currently at the ISS as return vehicles are limited to 200 days of on-orbit time. Of the six astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the station, the first set of crew of three will return to Earth next week via Soyuz, but it’s not known yet when their replacements will be able to fly. They original schedule has them launching on Sept 21, but that is unlikely. The second set of three ISS crewmembers will stay on board until mid-November.

Sources: Roscocmos, Florida Today

Cause of Progress Crash May Have Been Determined

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The Russian news agency Itar-Tass is reporting that the cause of the August 24 failure and crash of the Progress re-supply ship that was supposed to bring supplies to the International Space Station may have already been determined. “Members of the emergency commission have determined the cause of the failure of the Soyuz carrier rocket’s third stage engine,” Roscosmos spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov was quoted. “It is a malfunction in the engine’s gas generator.”

If the cause has indeed been found and if the anomaly can be resolved to the satisfaction of both Roscosmos and NASA, it might prevent a worst-case scenario of having to de-crew the International Space Station by mid-November, which NASA Space Station Program Manager Mike Suffredini said was a potential outcome.

The Soyuz launch sequence, showing the time of the anomaly. Credit: ESA

The emergency commission to study the problem was only formed on August 26, and that a cause has already been found comes as a bit of a surprise. The commission is lead by Anatoly Koroteev, head of the Russian Keldysh science research institute on rockets.

“He is a man with quite a bit of experience in this field for our Russian colleagues, and indeed the world,” Suffredini said during a press briefing on Monday morning. But Suffredini also said that it would likely take the commission awhile to sort out the cause and its implications to future flights.

“The team is just getting going,” Suffredini commented. “They are trying to work quickly to resolve the anomaly but they don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”

What actions will be taken to resolve the problem now that a cause may be established are not yet known. Suffredini said that two Soyuz-family unmanned rockets are scheduled to launch soon, which may provide a chance to test any fixes on unmanned launches before attempting a manned launch. A commercial Soyuz to launch a mobile communications satellites is scheduled on Oct. 8, and the Russians may launch the Progress resupply ship that is currently scheduled for October 26 a few weeks earlier in order to have another unmanned launch to study the problem.

The Progress cargo ships launch on a Soyuz-U rocket, while the Soyuz crew capsules, the Soyuz TMA launches on a Soyuz-FG. The third stages of the two rockets are virtually identical. The Soyuz-U rocket has had 745 successful launches and just 21 failures over nearly four decades. The Soyuz-FG has had 25 launches, all successful.

International Space Station Could be De-Crewed by November

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For personal reasons I had to miss the NASA press conference this morning which gave an update on International Space Station operations following the failure and crash of a Progress resupply vehicle last week. When I returned home and saw the headlines about the briefing from other news sites, I thought, “Wow, everyone is really overreacting about how this might affect the space station.” But then I watched a replay of the briefing and realized no news site was being overly melodramatic. NASA’s Space Station Manager Mike Suffredini laid out a fairly bleak picture of how quickly the ISS will have to be de-manned if the anomaly with the Soyuz-family of rockets isn’t figured out soon. The problem is not logistics or supplies; it all hinges on the Soyuz capsules themselves and their limited lifespan. If the anomaly is not figured out soon and the Soyuz rockets aren’t flying by mid-November, the space station will have to be de-crewed and be operated unmanned, remotely from the ground.

UPDATE: Please read our update on the situation, where the Russian space agency says they may have found the cause of the anomaly.

“If we don’t have the Soyuz flying by mid-November, then we would have to de-man the ISS at that time,” Suffredini said. “We are focusing on keeping the crew safe. The next focus is trying to keep the ISS manned. If it takes us awhile to resolve the anomaly and we have to de-man the ISS, we certainly have a safe way to do that. But we will try to avoid that if we can because we would like to continue operations. “

Suffredini said the focus of the entire program and in particular the focus of the Russian space agency is to determine the cause of the anomaly and to resolve it and then get back to flying safely.

This first post-shuttle era launch of a Progress cargo ship abruptly ended at about six minutes into the flight on August 24 when an engine anomaly prompted a computer to shutdown an engine, just before the third stage of the Soyuz rocket ignited. The rocket and ship crashed to Earth in eastern Russia, in a heavily wooded, mountainous, sparsely populated area in the Choisk region of the Republic of Altai.

“They believe it broke apart and they would like to find it, but as of this morning they had not located anything yet,” Suffredini.

The loss of supplies on board the Progress cargo ship is trivial, and not an issue at all. The space station is well-supplied into next summer, thanks to the additional space shuttle flight, STS-135 which brought up a filled-to-the-brim cargo container. The issue is the 200-day lifespan of a Soyuz capsule on orbit, particularly the perioxide thruster system which is not certified to last past 200 days.

Life aboard the ISS: Ron Garan trims astronaut Mike Fossum's hair in the Tranquility node of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Expedition 28 commander Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev and Ron Garan were scheduled to return to Earth on September 8, with another crew of Expedition 29 (Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoly Ivanishin and Dan Burbank) heading to the ISS on the Soyuz TMA-22 spacecraft on September 22 to return the crew back to a compliment of six.

Suffredini said they now plan to keep the three Exp. 28 crewmembers on board until mid-September or perhaps another week or so, but they can’t really go beyond that. The opportunities for landing during the daylight (required for safety reasons) in Kazakhstan end around September 19 and do not become available again until around October 26. But by that time, however, the crew’s Soyuz TMA-21 spacecraft will have been in orbit about 10 days beyond its certified 200-day limit.

“In general, we will probably end up bringing the crew home in the middle of September, to not endanger the crew getting home safely,” Suffredini said. He added later that they have talked about the possibility of recertifying the Soyuz to study whether it could last longer, but that would require a lot of work.

“The general theory is when you’ve already been handed one significant challenge you shouldn’t try to do another,” he said.

Originally the schedule called for another unmanned Progress launching on October 26, and then the remainder of Exp. 28 ( Fossum, Volkov and Furukawa) to return to Earth on November 16, with their replacements (Oleg Kononenko, Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers) coming to the station on Soyuz TMA-03M on Nov. 30.

The first of those threesomes can’t stay on orbit much longer than November 16, again because of daylight issues at landing and it’s not until the end of December when the daylight landing times align, which again, pushes the limit on the Soyuz lifespan.

So if the anomaly isn’t figured out by mid- November, the station will become unmanned. Suffredini said having an unmanned ISS isn’t really a problem logistically: They would configure the station that all systems were running redundantly, such as cooling and heating, and they would isolate each module by closing all hatches.

“Assuming no significant anamolies, which would be two system failures in a redundant system, we can operate indefinitely,” Suffredini said. He added that, of course, they prefer not to operate without crew for an extended time, mostly because of the loss of science opportunities. But they can do things like avoidance maneuvers or reboosts remotely from the ground.

In the meantime, a group of Russian rocket engineers are studying the problem, and we can assume NASA is giving whatever assistance they can. Two Soyuz-family of unmanned rockets are scheduled to launch, which may be a good thing: a commercial Soyuz to launch mobile communications satellites is scheduled on Oct. 8, and the Russians may launch the October 26 Progress resupply ship earlier in order to have another unmanned launch to study the problem.

When asked about the bad PR this situation must be presenting for NASA, especially in this time of tight budgets and the perceived lack of a mission for NASA, Suffredini paused before answering.

“Right now we are focusing on flying the space station safely,” he said. “I haven’t worried about the PR associated with it. For us, given this, what we see is an anomaly of a vehicle that maybe — if you think about it – was sort of a gift, to tell us about a potential problem without putting humans on a similar vehicle. This is a great opportunity to learn about an anomaly and resolve it without putting a crew at risk. Flying safely is much more important than anything else I can think about right at this instant.”

“I’m sure we’ll have the opportunity to discuss any political implications,” Suffredini continued, “if we spend a lot of time on the ground, but we’ll have to deal with them because we’re going to do what is right for the crew and the space station. It is a very big investment for our government and our job is to be good stewards to protect that investment. My goal is to get flying safely and get on with research and protect the crew and that investment along the way.”

Stay tuned.