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Russia mulls semi-unmanned missions as substitute for ISS

Russia mulls semi-unmanned missions as substitute for ISS
The Russian Federal Space Agency may in future wrap up its manned space exploration programs in favor of unmanned stations that can also be operated by cosmonauts if needed. The idea was floated after a string of Russian space launches failed.

The possible long-term shift in Russia’s space program was announced on Wednesday at a press conference at the Roscosmos Space Agency. Its head, Vitaly Davydov, said partial electronic control may replace a continuous human presence on the space stations. 

“We’ve got accustomed to spiral development of our space program. Now we don’t exclude we may look at returning to a previous way of exploring space – with stations attended by manned mission only from time to time instead of an ISS-style continuous mission”, Davydov said.     

Concerns about the future of Russian and international space exploration have been fueled by a chain of recent crashes and failures of Russian satellites and carriers. The crash of an unmanned Progress cargo spacecraft in eastern Russia became the third space launch accident in a single week. Russia has already adjusted the supply schedule of the ISS mission and altered its plans for Soyuz rocket launches.

With Russia the only country currently able to launch manned missions into orbit, a shift to unmanned space exploration is likely to influence all future space programs around the world.

However Davydov says there is no threat of an imminent crisis for space exploration. The problems Roscosmos faces now are organizational rather then technical and can be addressed with reforms, which would improve quality control.

One solution the space agency is likely to implement is the introduction of two additional independent test sites, which will perform ground tests of rockets before they are given the green light for a launch. Also the regulations for ground services will be amended to better concentrate authority and responsibility for each launch. Another organizational reform will return all space equipment acquisitions to the control of the military.

Davydov added that Roscosmos takes the series of failures very seriously and offered assurances that those responsible would be sacked.

“The incidents that happened are a serious blow for us. They are serious reasons for a probe, which will end with job consequences for those responsible. Those who failed in their responsibilities will not work for us,” he said.

The current investigation into the Progress freighter crash is to wrap up in a week or two, the official announced. He also confirmed plans to return to Earth three of the six crew members, who are currently manning the International Space Station, on September 16. The return flight was postponed due to alterations to the launch schedule in the wake of the Progress crash.