12:33 pm
Wed August 24, 2011

Russian Cargo Spacecraft Fails To Reach Orbit

An unmanned Russian cargo spacecraft taking cargo to the International Space Station encountered a malfunction minutes after launch Wednesday and pieces of it crashed back to Earth.

The Progress was loaded with nearly three tons of food, fuel and other supplies as it lifted off right on time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. But Russian flight control teams lost communications with the vehicle about five minutes into the flight.

NASA quoted Russian officials as saying the upper stage of the Soyuz rocket did not separate from the supply ship. The rocket failed to reach orbit and debris landed in southern Siberia, Russian officials said.

"The explosion was so strong that for 60 miles glass almost flew out of the windows," Alexander Borisov, head of the Choisky region in Russia's Altai province, was quoted as saying by state news agency RIA Novosti. He said there were no immediate reports of casualties.

The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Choisky's Interior Ministry as saying the space ship crashed in a vast Siberian forest that contains small villages. Yuri Shmyrin, the chief of Karakoksha, one of those villages, told Interfax news agency that the search operation for the wreckage is not likely to start until Thursday morning.

A brief statement from Roscosmos, Russia's space agency, said the accident "would have no negative influence" on the six astronauts aboard the International Space Station, which is well stocked after the last space shuttle delivered a year's worth of food and other provisions.

"The supplies aboard the space station are actually pretty fat" after the resupply mission by space shuttle Atlantis in July, NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries said from Houston. "So we don't anticipate any immediate impact to the crew."

Humphries stressed that NASA was waiting to get more details from Russian space officials on what actually happened.

It is the first time a Progress craft has failed to deliver supplies to the space station, which orbits 220 miles above the Earth. But the mishap has implications for NASA as it relies on Russia to take crew and cargo to the station now that the space shuttles are retired.

"We'll immediately begin to assess the data that's available to try to determine root cause," said Mike Suffredini, NASA's program manager for the space station.

Suffredini said the rocket that failed is very similar to the one Russia uses to carry up astronauts. So the investigation could affect a launch scheduled for next month to take up new station crew members, including an American astronaut.

Late this year, a commercial company in California plans to launch its own rocket and supply ship to the space station. NASA is encouraging private enterprise to make station deliveries.

With reporting from NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce in Washington, D.C., and from Peter Van Dyke in Moscow. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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