Russian engineers believe they have rectified snags which have seen Soyuz spacecraft returning from orbit take up dangerous "ballistic" trajectories recently. The Soyuz is likely to be the only craft capable of carrying humans into space for the first half of the next decade.
Aviation Week reports that NASA associate administrator William Gerstenmaier, has been briefed on the Soyuz' recent problems in Moscow. The Russians said that the "most probable cause" of the re-entry difficulties was a degraded initiation wire on a particular explosive bolt securing the crew compartment to the service module. These components are supposed to separate during re-entry.
The Russians believe that the thin space plasma in which the International Space Station (ISS) orbits is degrading the wire, meaning that the bolt doesn't function, though 11 others still do. The service module eventually comes off anyway, but not before the crew capsule has entered a non-optimal ballistic path.
The Roskosmos experts aren't absolutely certain that this is the root of their problems, but Gerstenmaier told Av Week that this was "the leading scenario". It seems that 25 other possible issues have also been fixed.
Meanwhile the Soyuz currently docked to the ISS should be fine, as the offending bolt has been manually removed by spacewalking astronauts.
The Russian tech fix is being publicised by NASA boss Michael Griffin as he seeks to gain US political support for continued purchases of Soyuz seats for his astronauts following the planned space shuttle retirement in 2010. Griffin is facing intense opposition from Washington to further US funds for the Russian rocket establishment, following Moscow's recent decision to invade Georgia.
Griffin is known to be worried that the next President will order NASA instead to continue Shuttle flights so as to maintain US access to the ISS. In his view this will cause delays and cost increases to the planned Shuttle successor, the Ares/Orion ships, leaving America lagging in the new wave of Moon and Mars missions being planned by the global powers. ®