ISS Supply Mission Fails

By Kim Smiley

An unmanned Progress supply capsule failed to reach the International Space Station (ISS) and is expected to burn up during reentry in the atmosphere along with 3 tons of cargo.  Extra supplies are stored on the ISS and the astronauts onboard are in no immediate danger, but the failure of this supply mission is another in a string of high-profile issues with space technology.

This issue can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a visual format of root cause analysis.  A Cause Map intuitively lays out the causes that contributed to an issue to show the cause-and-effect relationships.  To build a Cause Map, “why” questions are asked and the answers are documented on the Cause Map along with any relevant evidence to support the cause.

So why did the supply mission fail? The mission failed because the supply capsule was unable to dock with the ISS because mission control was unable to communicate with the spacecraft.  The Progress is an unmanned Russian expendable cargo  capsule that cannot safely dock with a space station without communication with mission control.  Mission control needs to be able to verify that all systems are functional after launch and needs a communication link to navigate the unmanned capsule through docking.

Images of the capsule showed that two of the five antennas failed to unfold leading to the communication issues.  Debris spotted around the capsule while it was in orbit indicates a possible explosion.  No further information has been released about what might have caused the explosion and it may be difficult to decisively determine the cause since the capsule will be destroyed in orbit.

The ISS recycles oxygen and water to an impressive degree and food is the first supply that would run out on the ISS, but NASA has stated that there are at least four months of food onboard at this time.  The failure of this mission may mean that the cargo for future missions will need to be altered to include more basic necessities and less scientific equipment, but astronaut safety is not a concern at this time. The failure of this mission does put additional pressure on the next resupply mission scheduled to be done by SpaceX in June in addition to creating more bad press for space programs that are already struggling during a turbulent time.

To view a intermediate Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.