Earlier this month our frequent space contributor, James Oberg, told us about the imminent launch of a redesigned "all digital" Soyuz, and why it's so important to the future of the International Space Station. He mentioned that a back up, old-model Soyuz was going to launch next, to give engineers time to assess how the digital ship did and fix any problems. But it seems that old Soyuz has hit a snag. Oberg writes:
The next-in-line Russian manned Soyuz spacecraft that was involved in a transportation incident last week will need extensive inspection and repair, Russia's space agency chief Anatoliy Perminov has admitted. This came after several days of official claims that only the shipping container had been affected by the railway accident in Kazakhstan as the vehicle was en route from its Moscow-area manufacturing site.
The three module spacecraft took a serious shock under circumstances that remain unclear. Perminov, however, says that "the train engineer was not careful enough." Vitaliy Lopota, director of the Energiya Rocket and Space Corporation that builds the spacecraft, said that "I think the condition of the railway line is to blame."
The 7 metric ton vehicle is suspended inside its canister at three points, and one of the fasteners failed, dropping the vehicle several centimeters to the floor, where it was able to roll back and forth slightly for much of the remainder of the trip. This was reportedly enough to damage the heat shield attachments and displace its axis 2 mm off the nominal centerline. A protective cover over the main engine was also found to be deformed.
Preliminary estimates are that it will take about two weeks of work to make repairs, although some of that could be accomplished in parallel with standard launch procedures. This effort possibly will include the replacement of the crew module with the one intended for a launch in March. Both TMA-20 and that vehicle, TMA-21, are old model Soyuzes, not the new "digital" upgrade.
The launch can slip up to ten days (from December 13 to 23) without impacting the very tight International Space Station traffic manifest. This was possible because by good luck another scheduled Russian launch—a robot supply ship originally slated for 27 December —had already slipped to 28 January because its supplies of food and rocket propellant were not so urgently required.
Samuel K. Moore is the senior editor at IEEE Spectrum in charge of semiconductors coverage. An IEEE member, he has a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from Brown University and a master's degree in journalism from New York University.