A robotic Russian space freighter headed for the International Space Station crashed into the Altai Republic near the border with China today after the third stage of its Soyuz launch vehicle failed about six minutes after launch.
NASA International Space Station Program Manager Mike Suffredini said the engine powering the stage inexplicably cut off five minutes and 50 seconds after blastoff from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The rocket failed to reach orbit and instead crashed into the remote, mountainous republic, which is located in central Asia at the juncture of Siberian forests, the steppes of Kazakhstan and the semi-deserts of Mongolia.
A thunderous blast from the crash broke windows in surrounding areas but there were no immediate reports of casualties. About 25 percent of the republic is covered with forests.
A Russian commission will investigate the accident.
Suffredini said the planned Sept. 8 return from the station of two Russian cosmonauts and American astronaut Ron Garan might be delayed to keep six people on the outpost. The planned Sept. 21 launch of a new expedition crew that includes U.S. astronaut Dan Burbank could be delayed also. The Soyuz rocket that launches Progress space freighters has a third stage that is very similar to the third stage of the type of Soyuz rockets used to launch station crews.
The upper stage of Soyuz rockets has little commonality with the Breeze-M upper stage that failed during an Aug. 17 Russian Proton rocket launch, stranding a European-built Russian communications satellite in a useless orbit.
The Progress space freighter was carrying about three tons of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station. Suffredini said the six people on the station now have reserves that are adequate enough to last well into 2012.
The loss of the Progress was the first since the U.S. and Russia began assembly of the International Space Station in late 1998.
ABOUT THE IMAGE: Click to enlarge the Associated Press image of the Soyuz rocket with a supply-filled Progress spacecraft blasting off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 9 a.m. EDT today. You can also click the enlarged image to get a bigger, more detailed view. (AP Photo/Rossiya 24 TV Channel).