NASA's first paid ride to the international space station will be delayed eight days due to problems preparing the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for launch, Russian and U.S. officials said Monday.
Launch of the 13th live-aboard space station crew was rescheduled from March 22 to March 30, said James Hartsfield, a spokesman for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA is paying Russia to transport astronauts to the space station after the grounding of the shuttle fleet.
The delay was not expected to impact operations aboard the orbital outpost, which currently is overseen by American commander Bill McArthur and Russian flight engineer Valery Tokarev. The men have been aboard the station since October 2005.
Vyacheslav Davidenko, a spokesman with the Russian Federal Space Agency, said several devices in the Soyuz control system had malfunctioned and had to be replaced, according to Russia's Itar-Tass news service.
The launch delay will postpone McArthur and Tokarev's homecoming until April 9. The men will be replaced by cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, the commander, and NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams, the flight engineer.
A Brazilian astronaut, Air Force Lt. Col. Marcos Pontes, also was expected to be launched with the new crew. His stay aboard the station, however, will last just eight days, and he will return to Earth with McArthur and Tokarev aboard a Soyuz capsule that is currently serving as the station's lifeboat.
NASA hopes to add a third live-aboard member to the station's two-person crews with the launch of its next space shuttle flight, targeted for May.
Space station managers reduced the number of crew members from three to two following the 2003 Columbia accident. Since then, only one shuttle has visited the station — Discovery, which launched last July. Continuing problems with foam insulation on the shuttle's external fuel tank led mission planners to suspend further flights until the problems were fixed.
Due to the lack of shuttle transport, the outpost has been dependent on smaller Russian ships for deliveries of crew and cargo, prompting managers to remove a crew member to save on supplies.
Last year, NASA's agreement with Russia to provide crew transport expired, leaving the United States in the awkward position of having to revise a weapons proliferation law that banned direct U.S. purchase of Russian space hardware and services.
The oriiginal restriction was put into place due to concerns that Russia was helping Iran develop nuclear and missile-delivery systems. Faced with the choice of abandoning the half-built outpost or exempting NASA from the ban, legislators last year agreed to allow NASA to buy space transportation from Russia.
The first purchase will be for the launch of Williams aboard the March Soyuz and a ride home for McArthur in April. NASA has said it will pay Russia $43.8 million for those two flights and some training for future crews.
Additional Soyuz rides will cost the U.S. space agency $21.8 million per astronaut.