A Soyuz rocket successfully launched the Progress 45 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan early Sunday, paving the way for a resumption of missions to the International Space Station with three-person crews using a similar version of the venerable launcher.
Crew launches have been on hold since the Aug. 24 loss of the Progress 44, ultimately blamed on a Soyuz third stage fuel line blockage that sent the space freighter plummeting into the remote Altai region of eastern Russia 320 seconds into flight.
Sunday's Soyuz climb to orbit with the latest Russian space freighter eases post crash concerns that the six person station faced a temporary de-staffing in mid-November if the root cause of the loss and a recovery plan could not be identified and executed quickly.
"We congratulate our Russian colleagues on Sunday's successful launch of Progress 45," William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in a post launch statement. "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."Russia's Progress 45 lifted off Sunday at 6:11 a.m., EDT, starting a three-day journey to the space station. Photo Credit/NASA TV.
Plans are proceeding for a Nov. 14 launching of the Soyuz 28 mission with American Dan Burbank and Russians Anatoly Ivanishin and Anton Shkaplerov from Baikonur.
Originally scheduled to lift off on Sept. 21, their launch was delayed while the Soyuz failure was investigated by a Russian state commission.
A Sunday launch success was considered an essential part of Russia's unmanned, two-flight recovery plan. The initial step was the Oct. 2 launch of the Soyuz-2 with the GLONASS-M payload from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome
Russian investigators traced the root cause of the Progress 44 crash to a contaminant introduced into the fuel line during a post -hot fire test inspection. The blockage reduced the fuel flow to a gas generator and raised temperatures, prompting a premature flight control system shutdown. The findings prompted a recall of third stage propulsion hardware assigned to other Soyuz missions as well as the addition of production line inspections and other quality control enhancements.
The Progress 45 mission lifted off Sunday at 6:11 a.m., EDT, initiating a three-day flight to the orbiting science lab. The cargo craft, loaded with nearly three tons of fuel, oxygen, water, spare parts and research gear, is scheduled to dock with the station's Russian segment Pirs docking compartment on Wednesday at 7:40 a.m., EDT.
On Saturday, the trash laden Progress 42 spacecraft departed the station, freeing the Pirs docking port for the arrival of the latest cargo craft.
"There are a number of things that need to go right during the next few weeks," Mike Fossum, the station's commander, noted after the departure. "The first small step was successful."
The discarded freighter, which arrived in late April, made a destructive re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.
Station staffing was reduced to three U. S., Russian and Japanese astronauts on Sept. 16, when two Russians and an American departed aboard the Soyuz 26 spacecraft.
Burbank, Shkaplerov and Ivanishin will reach the station on Nov. 16. Six days later, Fossum, Russian Sergei Volkov and Japanese Satoshi Furukawa are scheduled to descend to Earth on the Soyuz 27 spacecraft, ending a 167 day mission.
The outpost should resume regular six person operations with the Dec. 21-23 launch and docking of the Soyuz 29 mission carrying American Don Pettit, Russian Oleg Kononenko and European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers of the Netherlands.