The incident comes just weeks after engineers discovered a mysterious hole in a Soyuz capsule docked to the ISS, which resulted in a brief leak of pressurized air out of the station. The crew on board plugged the hole, and officials are still investigating the matter. The malfunction appeared on a part of the capsule that doesn’t return to Earth, so it doesn’t pose a threat to departing crew members.
Read: What happened on the International Space Station?
Thursday’s failed flight imperils the schedule of future crew launches. It’s unclear how long the investigation will take, and when officials will feel ready to launch again after its completion. Roscosmos could attempt to launch an uncrewed Soyuz capsule as a test. As for crewed flights, it’s possible the U.S. government, which pays Roscosmos to fly NASA astronauts, may be more hesitant than its Russian counterpart.
There are currently three people on the International Space Station: Serena Auñón-Chancellor of the United States, Sergey Prokopyev of Russia, and Alexander Gerst of Germany. The trio arrived at the ISS in June aboard another Soyuz capsule, which can remain in orbit only for about 200 days, according to its design specifications. They are scheduled to return to Earth in December. Even if the United States and Russia determine that the Soyuz program is ready for more crewed missions, there are no launches scheduled between now and December.
Unless something changes, the ISS will be empty when its current inhabitants depart, which would mark an unprecedented situation. The space station has been continuously occupied since 2000, with crews rotating in and out. NASA officials said Thursday they don’t have any official protocols for how long the ISS can remain empty.
If Russia resumes flights but the United States takes a step back, American astronauts will have no way to get to the ISS. NASA has relied on Russia’s transportation services since 2011, when the space-shuttle program ended after 30 years. The United States pays $70 million to $80 million per seat.
When the United States canceled the space-shuttle program, officials said that another astronaut-transportation system would become available soon. They turned to the private sector, offering companies funding to design and build these systems. In 2014, NASA gave two companies, SpaceX and Boeing, a combined $6.8 billion to develop their concepts. The space agency predicted they would complete their spacecraft, conduct both uncrewed and crewed test flights, and be certified for regular missions to the ISS by the end of 2017. The hiatus in U.S. launch capabilities, they promised, would be short-lived.
Read: NASA’s culture of optimism is too much of a good thing.
But the effort has experienced numerous delays, partly as a result of overly ambitious schedules by SpaceX and Boeing, according to federal audits of the program. While the hardware is nearing completion, NASA announced last week that crewed test flights are now expected in summer 2019 at the earliest. If the schedule slips further, the United States may be forced to purchase more seats from Russia or accept the fact that their astronauts may remain grounded for some time.
Americans and Russians have had uninterrupted access to space for decades. If the crew on the ISS returns and another doesn’t replace it, and if the investigation drags on for months, it’s quite possible that next year, as the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing approaches, all the world’s astronauts will have their feet firmly planted on Earth.