Today, the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the Committee on Space, Science, and Technology held a hearing entitled, "The International Space Station: Lessons from the Soyuz Rocket Failure and Return to Flight". The purpose of the hearing was to review the impacts of the Russian Soyuz launch vehicle failure on the safe operation and utilization of the International Space Station (ISS), as well as the current status of the Russian Federal Space Agency's accident investigation and return-to-flight plans.
In August, one week after a Proton rocket failed to deliver a Russian Express communications satellite, a malfunction in the upper stage of a Soyuz rocket caused the loss of the Progress cargo freighter carrying supplies to the ISS. The second mishap was significant because the Soyuz's upper stage used for Progress is virtually identical to the third stage used by Russia's crewed Soyuz spacecraft. There was immediate concern over the length of time Soyuz operations would be impacted, since the retirement of the Space Shuttle has made U.S. crew transportation solely dependent on Soyuz crew transfer and rescue services. In addition, following the failure, uncertainty over when manned Soyuz flights would resume spawned discussion over the possibility of having to operate the ISS without any astronauts onboard, raising concerns over the safety and survivability of the multi-billion dollar orbiting space laboratory.
"With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA is now fully dependent on Russia for transportation services to the ISS for at least the next five years ", said Acting Ranking Member Jerry Costello (D-IL). "We must use this opportunity to learn from these failures and plan for the future."
Based on current NASA plans and acquisition strategy, the agency hopes to have commercial crew transportation services available in the 2016 timeframe to support the ISS; however, the agency acknowledges that the timetable will depend both on the progress made by the would-be commercial services providers and on the amount of federal funding made available to the companies chosen to develop commercial services. Congress has been concerned about ensuring U.S. astronauts' access to the ISS in the post-Shuttle era. To that end, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act directs that the Space Launch System (SLS), whose architecture was recently agreed to by the Administration, be designed to have "the capability to serve as a backup system for supplying and supporting ISS cargo requirements or crew delivery requirements not otherwise met by available commercial or partner-supplied vehicles."
The issue of how NASA will need to interact with commercial transportation providers, should an anomaly similar to the Soyuz failure occur on a commercial vehicle used for carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS was discussed at the hearing, as was the involvement of external safety oversight bodies in reviewing such incidents. Congressman Donna Edwards (D-MD) stated, "The recent Soyuz incident makes crystal clear the reality that even launch vehicles and crewed spacecraft with decades of heritage can fail. As we contemplate the use of yet-to-be-developed commercial crew services to transport our astronauts to the ISS, we need to ensure that NASA will have access to all the data and information it will need to determine both the cause of any mishap that a commercial vehicle might experience and when it will be safe to resume crewed flight operations."
A common theme expressed by all three witnesses was the importance of the relationship that NASA has built with its Russian partners over many decades and how that relationship enabled understanding of the Soyuz anomaly and generated confidence in the corrective measures being taken.
* Mr. William H. Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate stated "Our Russian partners formed a commission to investigate the anomaly, and -- as has been the case with previous investigations -- have kept NASA well informed about the progress of their review. The launch vehicle involved
is a highly reliable booster based on a design that has been flying for decades. NASA is confident that our Russian partner will resolve the root cause of the accident and safely return the Soyuz booster to flight."
* Lieutenant General Thomas P. Stafford, USAF (Ret.) said "With nearly 40 years of continuous and close working relationship with the Russians and their space program, I can attest to their thorough and complete approach to problem solving, and to their robust manufacturing and test program philosophy."
* Vice Admiral Joseph W. Dyer (Ret.), Chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, stated "NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Missions Directorate has conscientiously communicated with the ASAP following the August incident. We've always found that communication to be forthright and transparent; NASA has shared their evolving understanding and has not been reluctant to share both what is known and unknown. We take faith in what we've heard and note the trusting relationships [NASA] has built with the Russians. To a great extent this relationship building has enabled NASA's timely understanding of the Russian Investigation status."
Congressman Costello said after the hearing "There is little doubt that the decades-long close relationship between the Russian space agency and NASA has had a positive effect on building confidence in the use of the Soyuz for transporting U.S. and international partner crew members. In the future, we will need to see a similar constructive relationship between NASA and its commercial providers if the agency is to be able to maintain a high level of vigilance over astronaut safety".