WASHINGTON – The taxi service to the International Space Station has stopped until further notice.
Neither the United States nor Russia will be able to send astronauts to the ISS until investigators determine why a Soyuz rocket experienced an anomaly after blastoff Thursday, forcing its passengers to make an emergency landing and complicating an already tricky launch calendar for 2019.
Russian officials launched a criminal investigation into the accident, the first on a manned flight in the country’s post-Soviet history. Russia’s Investigative Committee said a criminal probe would seek to determine whether safety regulations had been violated during construction, causing major damage. “Officials are currently examining the launch site, documents are being seized,” it said in a statement.
The only way to get astronauts from Earth to the ISS since 2011 has been aboard Russian Soyuz rockets.
But the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has now grounded the Soyuz rockets until a probe has found what caused a Soyuz rocket to show problems shortly after blastoff on Thursday, forcing U.S. astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin to land in Kazakhstan.
The problem came 119 seconds into the voyage as the rocket was traveling at about 4,700 mph (7,560 kph), according to NASA.
Hague and Ovchinin activated the emergency system that detached the capsule they were in and deployed the capsule parachutes to safely land back on Earth.
The next Soyuz launch for the ISS was scheduled for Dec. 20, and it was supposed to take a new three-person crew to the space station.
“They’re probably going to ground the Soyuz rockets for a while,” said Erik Seedhouse, an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Seedhouse, who specializes in applied aviation sciences, estimated that it would last at least “a few months.”
There were two similar Soviet-era accidents involving Soyuz spacecraft.
In 1975, Oleg Makarov and Vasily Lazarev made an emergency landing in Siberia’s Altai mountains following problems during booster separation. Vladimir Titov and Gennady Strekalov survived a fire during launch in Kazakhstan in 1983.
In 2015, Progress spacecraft — unmanned transport spacecraft that sent supplies to the ISS — had problems on launchers similar to the Soyuz rocket that experienced problems on Thursday.
However, Thursday’s case involved a manned vehicle, “so there’s much stricter requirements in investigations,” Seedhouse said.
The European Space Agency has already acknowledged that the incident will affect the ISS calender. It is making contingency plans for the three current ISS crew members — German Alexander Gerst, American Serena Aunon-Chancellor and Russian Sergey Prokopiev, all of whom were scheduled to return to Earth in December — to possibly stay aboard the station longer than expected.
The ISS usually has five to six astronauts aboard at any time on six-month rotations. The station has been continuously manned since November 2000.
One potential problem: The spacecraft that would let the ISS crew return to Earth, which docked at the station in June, is equipped with batteries that lose power after about 200 days, NASA said. That would in theory push the time limit of the crew’s return to Earth to early January.
That is the sole limiting factor, said John Logsdon, head of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University.
As for food, there is plenty for several months, as the station is regularly resupplied by unmanned Japanese and American craft.
The ISS — a rare point of cooperation between Moscow and Washington — has been orbiting the Earth since 1998.
But even the space station has proved a source of controversy in recent weeks.
Russian space officials have said they are investigating whether a hole that caused an oxygen leak on the ISS was drilled deliberately by astronauts. The hole was detected in August and quickly sealed up, but Russian newspapers said Roscosmos was probing the possibility that U.S. crew mates had sabotaged the space station to get a sick colleague sent back home.
NASA mothballed the space shuttle program in 2011, and since then has been paying Russia tens of millions of dollars to send their astronauts to the ISS.
The contract with the Russians ends in late 2019, and the U.S. space agency has contracts with two American companies, Boeing and SpaceX, to step in.
Now operating with a tighter budget than in its heyday during the Apollo era, NASA has evolved into more of an aerospace industry customer instead of developing rockets with them as a partner.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX, who also runs electric carmaker Tesla, will be using its Falcon 9 rockets. Since 2012 SpaceX has launched satellites for NASA, and has carried out 16 resupply missions to the ISS.
Sending astronauts to the ISS will be a first for a privately owned company.
However, SpaceX’s rocket program, just like Boeing’s, has run into delays, as is often the case in the aerospace industry.
An unmanned Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon capsule is scheduled for launch in January 2019, with a similar manned launch set for June 2019.
For Boeing, launches are set for March and August 2019 respectively.
Soyuz’s problems are a headache for the United States, which has a policy of having a continuous presence in space.
An interruption would be disastrous in terms of image, but also for the research aboard the ISS, as the orbiting station serves as a scientific laboratory.
The slightest delay by SpaceX or Boeing could delay the approval of their manned launch programs. This could mean that the first astronaut they would send to the ISS would depart in 2020 instead of 2019.
Thursday’s Soyuz incident “will put some pressure” on SpaceX and Boeing “to meet their current schedule,” Logsdon said.
To cope with the delay, the next ISS crew might remain aboard the station longer than the usual six months.
But of course that depends on whether the Soyuz are reauthorized for launch.