The taxi company for the International Space Station (ISS) will not carry more passengers until further notice.
Russian Soyuz rockets, which have been the exclusive carriers of all astronauts on the planet at ISS since 2011, will remain on earth until a Russian space agency investigation into the causes of bankruptcy of a rocket I was bringing a Russian and an American this Thursday in Kazakhstan.
The astronaut Nick Hague and the cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin had to activate the emergency procedure to separate the capsule from the rocket, only two minutes after takeoff, and return to Earth, and its fall was mitigated by parachutes. Both are safe and sound.
The next launch of a Soyuz rocket with three new members of the ISS crew was scheduled for December 20, but all flights were suspended for the duration of the investigation.
At a minimum, the suspension could be in place for "several months," said Erik Seedhouse, a professor at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, at AFP.
The expert recalls that Progress ships, which only carry supplies but whose launchers are similar to the rocket that had problems on Thursday, also had problems in 2015.
"In the current case, they are manned vehicles, so investigations should be even more rigorous," he explains.
The European Space Agency has already recognized that the accident will change the calendar of the ISS. And he did not rule out that the three current members of the ISS, the German Alexander Gerst, the American Serena Aunon-Chancellor and the Russian Serguei Prokopiev, should stay longer than expected, while they had to return to Earth in December.
In general, the ISS has five or six people on board for missions of about six months. They alternate and the ISS has been permanently inhabited since November 2000.
A potential problem is that the ship that allows them to return to Earth, which is already in the ISS, has a limit of 210 days since it was hooked to the orbital laboratory last June, due to the batteries installed on board, according to Erik Seedhouse . This marks January, in theory, as the deadline for returning to our planet.
This is the only real limiting factor, adds John Logsdon, an American space history expert and professor emeritus at George Washington University. In terms of supplies, the crew can remain for many months and ISS receives regular supplies from the Japanese and American cargo missions.
NASA sent space shuttles to the garage in 2011, and has since paid Russia tens of millions of dollars per seat to send its astronauts to the ISS.
But these contracts end at the end of 2019 and NASA has signed new contracts with American companies to be hired: Boeing, on the one hand, and SpaceX, on the other.
More limited now from its budget than in the great era of Apolo, NASA has changed its relationship with industry, becoming a customer, while previously it was a partner of the main US aeronautical groups to develop its rockets.
The company of Elon Musk, SpaceX, also head of the electric car manufacturer Tesla, entered the business with its Falcon 9 rockets, and since 2012 has launched many satellites of the US space agency. He also carried out 16 supply missions to the ISS.
Therefore, it was selected to send NASA astronauts to the ISS, which for the first time will constitute a private company. But its program, like that of Boeing, has been delayed, as often happens in this sector.
The latest calendar includes a first empty test flight of the Falcon 9 loaded with the new Dragon capsule manned in January 2019, with a test with people in June 2019. For Boeing, they will be respectively in March and August 2019.
Soyuz's problems are added to the US puzzle, whose policy is to have a continuous presence in space.
An interruption of this would be disastrous in terms of image, but also for the numerous research work aboard the ISS, which is a scientific laboratory.
The slightest delay in SpaceX or Boeing could delay the authorization of flights and, consequently, the first shuttle mission for astronauts until 2020, instead of 2019.
The Thursday incident "increases pressure on the US private transportation program to keep the program," John Logsdon told AFP.
To solve the problem, the next ISS passengers must stay longer than the usual six months. But first the Soyuz must be authorized to take off again.