Russia has suspended crewed rocket launches as it investigates the cause of a major malfunction that led to astronauts undergoing a crash landing.
The decision to stop sending people into space for now could have major ramifications for the space industry both in Russia and across the world.
The Baikonur Cosmodrome and the Soyuz rocket – both used for the aborted launch – are the only equipment available to put people in space, since the US has no capability of its own and must pay the Russian space agency for its services. And it comes at a time when questions surround Roscosmos, which continues to have a strained relationship with Nasa, its US counterpart.
It puts the immediate future of the International Space Station and other work under question, since astronauts sent on those missions go from the Russian cosmodrome and use its rockets to head into space.
The International Space Station had already been the centre of a fracture in the relationship between the Russian and US space agencies after a mysterious hole was found in another Soyuz capsule, while it was waiting and docked on the station.
Without the Soyuz programme, the crew on board will probably be able to make their way safely down on the capsules that are docked at the space station. But the astronauts who were heading up on the failed mission were an important addition to the crew, which is currently only made up of three people.
It is not clear how they will be replaced, since the repercussions of the failed launch will continue for months. It is likely that Russia will have to delay many future launches as it demonstrates to the world that its rockets and facilities are safe enough to carry more astronauts.
That means there might simply be no new space launches for months. Without the Russian space programme, astronauts and cosmonauts will be left hoping for a quick resolution to the problems in Baikonur, or for the alternatives the US has been developing to finally come into use.
After the US Space Shuttle programme was shut down in the wake of its own emergencies, it left Russia’s Soyuz rockets as the only vehicle that can carry crews into space.
Russia stands to lose that monopoly in the coming years with the arrival of SpaceX’s Dragon v2 and Boeing’s Starliner crew capsules.
Thursday’s failure was the first manned launch failure for the Russian space programme since September 1983 when a Soyuz exploded on the launch pad. Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Titov and Gennady Strekalov jettisoned and landed safely near the launch pad.
Russia has continued to rely on Soviet-designed booster rockets to launch commercial satellites, as well as crews and cargo to the International Space Station.
While Russian rockets had earned a stellar reputation for their reliability in the past, a string of failed launches in recent years has called into doubt Russia’s ability to maintain the same high standards of manufacturing.
Additional reporting by agencies
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