Space exploration isn’t all pretty pictures and floating around eating lettuce. Today, an unmanned Russian Progress 65 spacecraft was destroyed shortly after it launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The spacecraft was on an International Space Station resupply mission, stuffed with 2.5 tons of food, fuel, clothes, and other hardware. After successful blast off at 9:51 EST, ground crews lost contact with the ship just six minutes later. They stopped receiving telemetry, and radar stations weren’t picking up any signs of the spacecraft where it was expected to be, either. Further investigation showed the craft and its cargo burning up in the atmosphere 190 kilometers above Siberia.
While this could be a setback for Russian spaceflight, it’s not as much of a concern for either the Russian or US segments of the ISS. The ISS is by definition a multi-national enterprise, so losing a Russian cargo ship (or, you know, a couple) doesn’t spell doom. ISS resupply missions have had struggles before: Over nine months in 2014 and 2015, an Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft, a SpaceX Dragon, and another Russian Progress mission all failed for various reasons. But the astronauts were able to carry on as normal because the space agencies involved have built in redundancies and failsafes. They’re essentially hoarders.
Roscosmos is still investigating the incident, and it’s not entirely clear why this Progress cargo ship failed. But early indicators–and recent history–point toward issues with the Soyuz rocket launching the cargo. Russia’s 2015 failed supply mission was brought back to Earth by the same problem. The Soyuz has been a Russian spaceflight mainstay since the Soviet period, and for the moment, the Soyuz rockets are the only ones capable of bringing humans to the ISS.
Besides needing Soyuz in working order to bring relief crews, Progress spacecrafts perform key functions like reboosts and maneuvers of the ISS itself. That’s why this one was carrying extra fuel: You can either use engines on the Progress spacecraft to shift the space station after it’s docked, or use the fuel the cargo ship carried to power the engines on the Russian segment of the station. But according to NASA spokesperson Dan Huot, the ISS is all fueled up, and still docked with another Progress craft.
Another resupply mission scheduled for just next week: On December 9th, a Japanese HTV cargo ship is planned to deliver food, water, clothing, replacement parts, repair kits, and new experiments to the US segment of the ISS. Which doesn’t mean that the astronauts in the ISS’s Russian orbital segment are going hungry. “You do a variety of missions to keep those coffers full, to protect yourself from situations like this,” says Huot. “The loss of this vehicle isn’t going to impact operations in any way.” The ISS keeps a reserve of six month’s worth of supplies at all times, so nobody is going to be chowing down on space flowers or growing potatoes in poop any time soon.