Good: Soyuz crash not design flaw. Bad: manufacturing flaw

When a Russian Progress resupply capsule crashed on the way to the ISS last month, the worry was that a design flaw could mean the grounding of the only way to get astronauts to the station. Russia has now identified the cause of the crash, and while it's not a flaw in the design, it's something almost as bad.

A Russian investigatory commission has discovered that the crash of Progress, the unmanned cargo ship, was caused by a clogged fuel line in the third stage engine of the Soyuz rocket. This particular fuel line was driving a turbopump that pumps fuel into the main combustion chamber, so when the pump failed, the third stage shut down and the vehicle plowed into Siberia at a couple thousand miles an hour.

So, the good news: it's not a design flaw. This means that there's nothing wrong with the rocket itself, and Russia, which is currently the only country with the ability to ferry astronauts up to the station, doesn't have to go back to the drawing board to implement a new fix, which could take months or years.

The bad news, though, is what a manufacturing flaw implies about the state of the Russian space program in general. It means that quality control is now suspect, not just at the third stage engine assembly plant, but also at all of the other Soviet-era factories scattered around Russia that are responsible for making the hundreds of other parts that all have to work flawlessly for a Soyuz launch to not end in catastrophe.

This leaves NASA with a bit of a sticky wicket. Russia has promised that they'll successfully launch another resupply ship and some satellites to prove that the Soyuz rockets are still safe before they send up another manned mission to the ISS, but making this happen by mid-November (which is the deadline for keeping the ISS manned) is going to be a bit of a stretch. Really, Russia has to implement much stricter quality controls over its entire supply chain, which is a long and complicated process, and if NASA decides to wait for all that to happen to maximize safety, there may not be a manned launch for quite a while.

Or I guess I should say, there may not be a manned government launch for quite a while. Private companies are doing their best to make up the slack, and depending on what happens over there in Russia, the next human to reach space could be riding in something like this. Or, if all else fails, one of these.

Via NY Times

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