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The space blame game

NBC Nightly News
 Click for video: NBC's
 Tom Costello reports
 on the Soyuz landing.

Three spacefliers are still recuperating from this month's rough ride back down to Earth from the international space station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and the investigation into the glitches that caused the April 19 shake-up is just getting started. But a multiplayer blame game already has begun - with the potential targets ranging from shoddy Russian workmanship, to saboteurs of the space effort, to the entire female sex. The finger-pointing could have an effect on the way spaceflight is done for years to come.

The questions began soon after the Soyuz spacecraft's landing, which brought down NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson (the space station's first female commander), Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko (the first man to be married while in space) and South Korea's first astronaut, Yi So-Yeon.

On the way down, the three were subjected to G-forces well in excess of the usual, apparently the result of a ballistic landing trajectory that put them 260 miles off target.

Initially, Russian space agency chief Anatoly Perminov told reporters that the crew's bad luck was due to the fact that women were in the majority - and that "in the future, we will work somehow to ensure that the number of women will not surpass" the number of men.

The tale took a more serious turn a couple of days later, when rumors spread that the crew capsule had malfunctioned during its planned separation from the rest of the Soyuz craft, and that the crew was closer to catastrophe than originally thought. NBC News' space analyst, James Oberg, worried that the added pressure to produce spacecraft for servicing the space station was leading to quality-control problems.

NASA quickly downplayed the rumors about a serious malfunction, and the official line from Moscow was that such reports were nothing more than "nonsense" aimed at disrupting the U.S.-Russian space relationship. A spokesman for the Russian space agency, Alexander Vorobyov, called the rumors a "dirty trick."

"Publications of this kind are designed to disrupt a Russian-U.S. agreement on NASA's purchases of Progress and Soyuz spacecraft after shuttles stop flying" to the international space station in 2010, he said.

Perminov himself hinted darkly that the rumors were fueled by "people who are interested in destabilization of our relations with the American partners."

Oberg takes a closer look at the blame game this week in an in-depth analysis for NASASpaceflight.com. He says it's essential for NASA to become involved in Russia's investigaton of the landing, particularly because the U.S. space agency will become more reliant on Soyuz craft after the space shuttle fleet is retired:

"With future Soyuz flights becoming the sole crew access to the space station for many years, NASA needs to be an integral part of every incident investigation - not just be on the distribution list for executive summaries, whenever they are ultimately issued. There is a window of opportunity for NASA to press for this participation, due to the naming of an outside expert to head the investigation."

The obfuscation surrounding this month's incident could have an impact more jarring than the hard landing itself. Already, this month's incident has created a mini-backlash that highlights America's "spaceflight gap."

The Orlando Sentinel, for example, said in an editorial that the mishap provides "another reason for Congress to find the money to make the gap between the 2010 grounding of shuttles and the launch of NASA's next manned vehicle as short as possible." And just today, members of Congress said the Soyuz incident raised fresh concerns about the shuttle shutdown plan.

"We could have six astronauts up on the space station and literally no way to get them down, and all the people of the world will be in the sad prospect of watching them die as they run out of food and supplies," WFTV quoted Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., as saying.

The controversy could lead NASA to give the existing shuttle fleet a reprieve, or accelerate the development of its own Orion next-generation spacecraft, or beef up private-sector efforts to build spaceships capable of resupplying the space station.

Come to think of it, maybe that last option isn't such a bad thing. What do you think? Feel free to add your opinion below.