It is a real piece of irony.
In this 50th year of the first manned space flight, comes the news that the 100 billion dollar International Space Station (ISS) could be left unmanned from November 2011 if Russia is unable to solve the problem related to the Soyuz rocket.
Could you think of a more powerful symbol of the human space flight programme than the ISS? No.By chance if the Russians are not ready with their rocket which would result in the abandonement of the space station even temporarily, a lot of scientific research would suffer.
The problem has come up in the wake of the third stage of the Soyuz-U rocket with an automated resupply ship bound for the space station developing a snag five-and-a-half minutes into the flight and crashed. Speculation is rife that this was a result of low pressure on the fuel side.
This has happened against the background of Nasa's space shuttle era coming to an end leaving a major gap in the transportation to the ISS. Following the final flight of the shuttle, the US was completely dependent on the Russians to fly crew members and cargo to the ISS. Now, with uncertainities relating to Russian rockets, it seems that the future of the space station itself hangs in balance. Again, this has happenend in the 50th year of the first human space flight by Yuri Gagarin. Who can deny that the creation of the ISS was after all one of the significant outcomes of Gagarin's flight.
This is the fourth time this year that a Russian space programme has suffered a setback raising several questions about its quality and safety. Roscosmos has to carry out a detailed analysis about the cause of these mishaps and not do a hurried investigation merely to restore its flights. The next mission to the space station should go without a hitch and restore the confidence of other space agencies in Roscosmos.
One thing needs to be said, however. It was well known that Nasa was wrapping up its space shuttle programme this year. This had been publicised for quite some time ago. Keeping this in view, maybe the US could have got ready private flights to the ISS like the Dragon atleast to carry cargo. Indications are that Dragon will make its maiden docking to the ISS in November 2011---the very month Nasa plans to ``de-man,'' the space station if Russia is unable to provide a rocket!
Also, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Jaxa---the Japanese space agency--perhaps could have planned man rated space crafts to the ISS to fill the gap caused by the exit of the space shuttle. International space agencies connected with the ISS should have chalked out plans more thoroughly regarding the post shuttle era. Apparently, this is not the case.
With the future of the ISS at stake, China has announced that the first phase of its space station known as Tiangong-1 will lift off next month. This will be followed by the docking of Shenzhou 8,9 and 10 to Tiangong-1 in the next few months. China hopes to completes its space station by 2020---the very year the mission life of the ISS is expected to end.
In this 50th year of the first manned space flight, on one hand we have news about the crisis facing the ISS and on the other China launching the first part of its space station.
Two sides of the coin.