A Russian Soyuz rocket with three astronauts — two Russians, one American — is set to lift off from Kazakhstan on Monday morning, ferrying the men to the International Space Station.
An American, Daniel C. Burbank, right, and two Russians, Anton N. Shkaplerov, center, and Anatoly A. Ivanishin, are to depart on Monday morning.
When it is launched Monday, a Russian Soyuz rocket will be carrying two Russians and an American on a mission to the International Space Station.
Ordinarily, the launching of a Soyuz,Russia’s workhorse rocket for decades, is a mundane event. But this time the future of the space station — and, indeed, the space programs of Russia and the United States — may be riding on the mission’s success. There are now three crew members living on the space station, and they are scheduled to return to Earth this month; if the three relief astronauts do not arrive before then, the space station will be empty for the first time in more than a decade.
The flight is also the beginning of a new chapter for NASA, which ended its space shuttle program in July and is now turning to foreign governments and commercial enterprises for space transportation. Monday’s launching will be the first trip by astronauts to orbit since the retirement of the shuttles.
Daniel C. Burbank, Anton N. Shkaplerov and Anatoly A. Ivanishin are scheduled to launch at 10:14 a.m. Monday — which is 11:14 p.m. Sunday Eastern time — from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The trip, which was supposed to take place in September, was postponed after the failure in August of a Russian unmanned cargo rocket.
NASA officials expressed confidence that their Russian counterparts had diagnosed and corrected the problem.
“The Russian commission has talked to us and explained the basis for their analysis,” said William H. Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA’s human exploration and operations mission directorate. “They’ve done everything we would do to make sure everything is fine, and we’re ready to go launch.”
Russia has had a rough year in its space endeavors. The problem in August was that the third stage of the cargo rocket shut down early; instead of reaching orbit, the spacecraft arced into a Siberian forest.
There have been two other mishaps. Earlier in August, the failure of an upper stage of a different Russian rocket put a communication satellite in a wrong orbit. And last week, a Russian probe that was supposed to explore a Martian moon got mired in low-Earth orbitafter its engines failed to fire.
The probe, the Phobos-Grunt, is being monitored by Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, which is trying to re-establish contact and set it on course, but the chances for success look slim.
The reliability of rockets has traditionally been a strength of the Russian space program, and the problems with three different rockets this year may indicate underlying issues, said Scott Pace, a former NASA official who now directs the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
“I hope there are full and frank discussions going on” between NASA officials and their Russian colleagues, Dr. Pace said.
The third stage of the cargo rocket is essentially identical to that of the astronaut-carrying Soyuz, which led Russia to suspend flights as it investigated the crash. Experts concluded that the faulty engine had suffered from a one-time flaw. A cargo rocket was successfully launched for a flight to the space station last month, clearing the way for the resumption of astronaut flights.
When the three men arrive at their destination on Wednesday, the space station will temporarily be back to its full complement of six crew members. But then the three crew members currently in orbit will return to Earth.
Another Soyuz with three more crew members is scheduled to launch next month. “Once we have the December flight, we’re pretty much back on a regular schedule,” Mr. Gerstenmaier said. Much of the scientific research on the station is controlled and monitored on the ground, and the impact of the delays on research was “modest,” he said.
The problems also pushed back the launching schedule for Space Exploration Technologies Corporation of Hawthorne, Calif. — SpaceX, for short. A test flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9rocket, which lifts a capsule called the Dragon, was supposed to take place in September, carrying hundreds of pounds of supplies to the space station. But now that mission will not happen until next year. If it succeeds, SpaceX will begin regular cargo runs to the station.
Meanwhile, Russian engineers continue to try to communicate with the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft launched Wednesday, which was meant to land on the Martian moon Phobos, scoop up some dirt and bring it back to Earth. But Phobos-Grunt — “grunt” means ground in Russian — remains in orbit after its engines failed to fire.
If contact cannot be resumed, Phobos-Grunt will fall back to Earth, most likely sometime next month. But predicting the rate of fall of a satellite is a tricky business, said Nicholas Johnson, NASA’s chief scientist for space debris. A lot depends on the spacecraft itself — whether it is tumbling, for instance — and on how active the Sun is during the weeks in question. A more active Sun causes Earth’s atmosphere to puff outward, increasing the drag on satellites.
“The spacecraft will likely last into December, potentially even late December,” Mr. Johnson said.