NASA astronaut Catherine Coleman (left), Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev (middle), and European astronaut Paolo Nespoli (right), peer out from their Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft before their launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Problems reportedly bedeviled a communication link leading to Russia's Mission Control for a few hours today — leading to false alarms suggesting that there was trouble on the International Space Station, or on a Soyuz spacecraft that's on its way to the station. The glitch has been resolved and the crews are in no danger, but the snag caused a stir in press circles.
NBC News analyst James Oberg pieced together the story from Russian media reports as well as NASA sources who were keeping tabs on the station and the Soyuz. The alarm was sparked by a Novosti report claiming that Russian controllers were "without communication about the status of the International Space Station" and "haven't received any information about the status of the Soyuz."
That report was quickly picked up by Russia's Interfax news service, and that report was passed along in turn by Reuters. In the meantime, Novosti posted a revised report saying that the communication problem had been resolved. Later, Novosti and Interfax said the problem involved a fiber-optic network and lasted for several hours. Other reports suggested that a line between Mission Control and a military satellite control center had been cut.
It's not clear whether the disruption affected all of the primary and backup links to Russia's Mission Control Center, also known as the TsUP. There was "no indication of alarm" in the space communication traffic monitored by NASA, agency spokesman Josh Byerly told Oberg from Johnson Space Center.
Three astronauts are aboard the Soyuz: NASA's Catherine Coleman, Italy's Paolo Nespoli and Russia's Dmitry Kondratyev. They were launched on Wednesday from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and are on track to dock with the station on Friday.
The fact that Russia's Mission Control was having problems hearing from the space station as well as the Soyuz was a tip-off that the communication problem had an earthly cause. Here's what else Oberg had to say about today's incident:
"Had the problem only been in the Soyuz, it would have had much more serious implications. First, this particular spacecraft was involved in a railway collision while being transported to the launch site two months ago, and the entire crew cabin had to be replaced by the next-in-line module originally planned for a March 2011 launch. Hurrying its checkout schedule to launch 100 days sooner was a major stress on the workforce requiring three-shift operations. Under such conditions, one can assume the chances of human error go up.
"Also, without communications, the Soyuz always has the recourse of emergency landing back on Earth. For every circuit of the planet (16 per day) there is a pre-scripted landing point somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. Problem is — most of those in Russia and Canada are currently enduring severe winter cold that would have made an emergency landing and rescue problematic.
"But no problem, it seems. This is just the kind of 'failure' that training directors make the crews in space and in Mission Control go through in practice, before launch. It's in keeping with an old maxim from General Suvorov, who beat Napoleon at Borodino in 1812 (beat him by not losing): 'Battle is easy, it's training that's hard.' Or as a Chinese general preached 2,000 years ago: 'The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war." As a veteran of both spaceflight training and real spaceflight operations at Mission Control in Houston, I can vouch for that attitude."