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Malfunction delays Russia's next launch to space station

Russian space agency Roscosmos says that, due to technical reasons, it will be delaying plans to bring NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko up to the International Space Station on Sept. 23.

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In this frame from video taken from NASA TV, Commander Jeffrey Williams (bottom) and Spacewoman Kate Rubins work outside the International Space Station on Sept. 1, 2016. Russia now says it will be postponing its planned Sept. 23 launch, intended to send fresh crew to the space station.

NASA TV/AP

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Russia’s space agency announced on Saturday that a trip to the International Space Station scheduled for Friday, September 23, has been postponed for technical reasons.

The report issued by Roscosmos announcing the postponement was brief, although a space industry source reportedly told the Russian news site RIA Novosti that the delay was due to a short circuit found during testing.

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Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is the only crewed spacecraft capable of delivering people to the International Space Station (ISS). This week’s launch was scheduled to deliver Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko as well as NASA’s Shane Kimbrough to the ISS. Now, astronauts are unlikely to make it to the station until October.

Although the recently overhauled Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only option to ferry ISS crews back and forth, some say that the United States should end its reliance on Russian technology.

Last summer, Michelle Toh reported for The Christian Science Monitor that a malfunction on a docked Russian craft at the International Space Station worried station crew.

“The mishap is the latest in a string of Russian spacecraft malfunctions, each relatively harmless but collectively drawing attention to a space program that many experts say is suffering from a decline in quality and management," writes Ms. Toh.

“Three crew members were left stranded on the ISS in April after an unmanned Soyuz supply spacecraft spun out of control, losing communications and stalling plans for their return. Weeks later, another Russian rocket carrying a Mexican satellite crashed shortly after takeoff.”

Since NASA stopped using its own space shuttle, the US space agency has paid $70.7 million per seat to send astronauts to the ISS using Russian Soyuz craft, money the United States would much rather spend elsewhere.

There have also been concerns that Russia uses that income to develop programs such as missile systems that put US national security at risk.

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As a result, the United States is examining private options for shuttling ISS crew members to the station – SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance are both exploring crewed space flights.

It may be a timely decision. Just last month, Roscosmos announced that it may shrink its astronaut complement aboard the ISS from three cosmonauts to just two. The decision appears to be, in part, due to private companies such as SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance, which already are showing the potential to take a significant amount of space revenue out of Russian hands.

Some, however, speculate that by trimming their astronaut complement, the Russian space agency may actually be able to take in more revenue, selling seats that might have gone to astronauts to space tourists instead.

NASA’s response to Russia’s proposal was cautious.

"At this point it's strictly a proposal they put on the table, and we'll look at it," NASA's space station operations integration manager Kenny Todd said in a media briefing. "As we do with all these kinds of things, we'll trade it against whatever risk it might put into the program.... And then from there we start looking at the options and see what we can do as a partnership to try to either accommodate it, or help them realize why that's a bad thing."