A Setback Could Force NASA to Bid for a Plan B

The announcement on Tuesday by the Russian space agency that it will delay the launching of the next crew to the International Space Station is a concern for NASA, which is relying solely on the Russians for astronaut transportation.

The end of the space shuttle program after the last flight in July was meant to usher in a new era where NASA could move on to more ambitious destinations and nimbler, cheaper private companies would take over the job of ferrying people and supplies to the orbiting research station. But a series of recent rocket malfunctions — including one on Aug. 24 by a Russian ship that was taking supplies to the space station — has made this approach look tenuous.

“It would be better if the space station were not reliant on any one nation,” said Scott Pace, director of the space policy institute at George Washington University.

American companies have contracts with NASA to carry cargo to the space station and hope eventually to win contracts to serve as space taxis for humans. But their success is hardly assured. The Orbital Sciences Corporation of Vienna, Va., one of two companies that are to start taking cargo to the space station next year, suffered a setback in June when an engine caught fire during a ground test.

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