Russian space chief says crash 'isolated' glitch

MOSCOW Fri Oct 7, 2011 12:17pm EDT

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MOSCOW Oct 7 (Reuters) - Russia's space agency chief told lawmakers on Friday that safety checks showed a rocket failure that led to the crash of an unmanned cargo craft was an isolated problem but said it had highlighted deeper concerns.

With the NASA space shuttles retired this year, the failed launch last month exposed the vulnerability of having only one way for crews to fly and raised fears about the future of the International Space Station.

Roskomos head Vladimir Popovkin said an inspection of rockets similar to the one that caused the crash of the Progress cargo ship had found no production faults, opening the way for launches to be renewed to the space station.

An earlier investigation blamed a fuel pipe blockage.

"We tested all the engines so we can say that the clogged pipe that brought down the Progress is an isolated incident," Popovkin said in a televised address to parliament.

He said a crowded launch schedule -- including a Progress supply flight on Oct. 30 and crewed mission on Nov. 14 -- would bring the space station back to full operation by Dec. 21.

Delays after the Progress crash left a three-person crew aboard the station, a $100-billion project of 16 nations that orbits about 225 miles (360 km) above the Earth.

Popovkin said a series of botched launches in recent months showed the need to create an independent agency to run quality controls at the Russian-leased Baikonur launchpad in Kazakhstan.

"I honestly do not think it should be seen as a major achievement for us that we are the only ones fully supporting (flights to) the International Space Station," he said.

"While other countries are working on new (spacecraft) we are forced to focus on the production of well-reputed but comparatively old spacecrafts Soyuz and Progress."

Despite the fact that Russia fields 40 percent of the world's space launches, he said it only held 3 percent of the $267-billion-dollar global space industry market this year.

NASA unveiled plans last month to redirect funds toward building a deep-space rocket to carry astronauts to the Moon, Mars and other destinations beyond.

NASA projects its first test flights in 2017.

Popovkin dismissed ambitions to fly cosmonauts to Mars, saying Russia would make exploration of the Moon its priority.

"The prospect of flights to asteroids and Mars is far off and their realisation depends not only on the economic development of the country but technological progress."

Citing a lack of financing, the space agency chief also said Russia would halt the production of Rus-M carrier rockets, part of an ambitious plan to launch new-generation spacecraft from 2015 at the Vostochny launchpad Russia aims to build in the Far East.

"We have come to the conclusion that we do not need a new rocket, we can continue using those we already have," Popovkin said. (Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel)

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