MOSCOW/CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - An unmanned Russian cargo ship carrying food and fuel to the International Space Station failed to reach orbit and burned up in the atmosphere shortly after launch on Wednesday, potentially affecting staffing of the orbital outpost.
The accident occurred about five minutes after a Russian Progress rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 9 a.m. EDT, due to an apparent failure of the rocket’s upper-stage motor.
A similar system is used on the Russian Soyuz rockets which, since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles last month, are now the sole means to fly crew members to and from the station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations.
A search for the cargo spacecraft’s debris was under way in Russia’s Siberian Altai region, Russia’s Interfax news agency said.
The Russian and U.S. space agencies said the six astronauts aboard the space station had a plentiful supply of food and water.
“We can go several months without a resupply vehicle if that becomes necessary,” NASA’s space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters during a conference call.
But the planned September 22 launch of a new crew to the station could be affected, he added.
“Obviously, this has implications to the (space station) and the crew as well,” Suffredini said.
The cargo craft was to carry nearly three tons of supplies, including food, spare parts and fuel to the astronauts aboard the station -- U.S. astronauts Ron Garan and Mike Fossum, Japan’s Satoshi Furukawa and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Volkov, Alexander Samokutyayev and mission commander Andrey Borisenko.
Problems with the supply mission are rare for the Russian space program, which has flown more than 40 previous Progress cargo flights to the station.
But it was the latest in a series of costly botched launches that could fuel worries over reliance on Russia as the only means to ferry astronauts to and from the space station.
On August 17, a multimillion-dollar communications satellite was placed in an incorrect orbit, apparently due to an upper-stage motor failure. That prompted Russia to ground its chief Proton-M rocket for commercial and military launches.
An investigation into the cargo ship accident is under way. If the issue is not resolved within a few weeks, NASA and its partners would have to decide whether or not to fly three of the station crew members home as planned, or extend their mission beyond six months.
The length of the missions is determined by crew health concerns and by the on-orbit lifespan of the Soyuz ships that are docked at the station and are used to fly the crew home.
“I was disappointed that we’d lost the spacecraft, but frankly I think we’ll sort this one out and get to flying again,” Suffredini said.
He said he does not believe the motor used in the failed Russian satellite launch is related to the one used on the Progress rocket.
NASA staged its final shuttle mission in July to stock the space station with a year’s worth of supplies, hoping to tide over the outpost until newly hired commercial firms begin operations next year.
In addition to Russia, Europe and Japan fly freighters to the station. NASA has hired commercial resuppliers Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp to fly U.S. cargo to the station.
Editing by Jane Sutton and Xavier Briand