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An unmanned spacecraft launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The Russian Progress cargo ship blasted off from Baikonour Cosmodrome on August 24.

Photograph from AFP/Getty Images

Dave Mosher

for National Geographic News

Published August 24, 2011

A rocket carrying an unmanned Russian spacecraft failed shortly after launch this morning, bringing three tons of supplies bound for the International Space Station (ISS) crashing back to Earth.

While the incident may postpone the return of some ISS crew members, the astronauts already on board the ISS aren't trapped in orbit, NASA and Russian authorities say.

The Soyuz rocket booster capped with a Progress cargo capsule turned into a supersonic rain of debris over Siberia about 5 minutes, 50 seconds after launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The blast from the impact was so loud, according to an Associated Press report, that it rattled and even broke windows on the ground in Russia's Altai Province.

(Related: "Garbage-Filled Spaceship to Fall to Earth Tuesday" [June 21, 2011].)

Given the catastrophic failure of the Soyuz rocket—the only launch vehicle currently certified to take people to and from the space station—NASA and its partners are now in a scheduling pickle.

Six people, including two U.S. astronauts, are presently living on board the space station. They are split into two crews of three people, and each crew has a Soyuz spacecraft docked to the ISS that's ready to leave the orbiting laboratory at any time.

One of the crews is scheduled to return to Earth on September 8. But until the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, wraps up a review of the rocket failure, the international collaboration will postpone the September 21 launch of the next three-person replacement crew, so mission managers may have to ask the onboard astronauts to stay a little longer.

"We will bring them home when it's right to do so," ISS program manager Michael Suffredini of NASA said during a televised briefing.

(Related: "After Space Shuttle, Does U.S. Have a Future in Space?")

Space Station Has Rolling Expiration Date

The next load of supplies to the ISS is slated to launch October 26 in a Progress capsule atop a Soyuz rocket. It's the same assembly that was used for today's launch, so Roscosmos must finish their failure review before the supply ship can lift off.

But even if NASA, Roscosmos, or the Japanese and European partners could no longer send any supplies up to the space station, there's no immediate risk to the ISS crew.

The spacefliers on board could stretch current stocks of food, water, and other supplies for a year—and probably longer with a reduced crew of three, said NASA spokesperson Kelly Humphries.

Program manager Suffredini added that "we're perfectly able to operate with the crew [of three] ... we just won't get much research done." Instead, crews would have to focus on maintaining the roughly 400-ton orbital laboratory.

Over time, air drag from the outer reaches of Earth's atmosphere slows the complex down, which means the station must use periodic propellant burns to stay in a stable orbit. (See "Space Station to Fall to Earth—Find Out How and Where.")

Stocks of propellant should also last at least a year, Suffredini said, and probably longer, thanks to a recent boost of the station's orbit.

Suffredini added that unmanned European, Japanese, and commercial U.S. spacecraft could help keep the space station aloft "indefinitely"—barring a major onboard failure—as mission controllers handle the routine maintenance tasks from their computers.

(Related pictures: "Homemade Personal Spacecraft Lifts Off.")

But there is one limiting factor for keeping people on board: The space station's toilet.

"If I was counting on which consumables [would limit the crew], it might be potty parts in the end," Suffredini said, referring to both human waste on board the space station and supplies used to sanitize and store waste.

"But that's way in the future. We won't be talking about that for some time."

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