The first test flight of the Soviet Union’s new space shuttle was aborted just 51 seconds before launch because a safety platform failed to pull away from the rocket and free it for blast-off, authorities reported Saturday.
Postponement of the unmanned flight was a disappointment for Soviet space officials, who have high hopes for their new shuttle program, but the mission is likely to be rescheduled for sometime later this week.
And at least one more unmanned test flight is planned before Soviet cosmonauts fly their first mission on the shuttle, named Buran--Snowstorm in Russian.
Maj. Gen. Vladimir Y. Gudilin, the test control chief at the Baikonur space center in Soviet Central Asia, said that monitoring equipment had immediately detected the failure of the special escape slide to pull completely away from the shuttle.
“Our system provides, first of all, for the safety of the test center, the personnel and the equipment, and it acts to preempt any danger that arises,” Gudilin said.
“This is not a failure, really. Anyone who tests some complicated system has to understand that something can go wrong. It is really a matter of finding it and fixing it. That is what we are engaged in now.”
With 2,000 tons of fuel being drained from the giant, two-stage Energia rocket and its boosters, engineers and technicians at the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan will probably require at least three days to determine the cause of the problem, fix it, refuel and start the long countdown again.
“Buran is safe, Energia is safe, and they can be prepared at any time for the launch,” Gudilin said. “But something went wrong in the ground-support system, and we need to analyze that and test it before we proceed.”
The launch was scheduled for Saturday, 6:23 a.m. Moscow time (8:23 p.m. Friday PDT). It was first postponed for four hours and then canceled.
Gleaming White Craft
Buran, a gleaming white, delta-winged craft with a strong resemblance to the U.S. space shuttle, is carried into space by the powerful new Energia rockets.
A special launch pad has been built at Baikonur for the Buran missions, and the test Saturday was the first time the new facilities had been used.
The shuttle, which will be able to carry four cosmonauts and six scientists, was scheduled to have orbited the Earth at least two times while Soviet scientists checked its operations.
The shuttle has an automated landing system that would have brought it back to a three-mile runway built for it at Baikonur.
Problems in two other Soviet space programs earlier this year have made officials cautious.
In September, two cosmonauts were stranded aboard a Soyuz capsule with limited air and food after two unsuccessful attempts to land on their return from the orbiting Soviet space station, Mir. The equipment problems and human errors were corrected after a day, and they landed safely.
In August, a ground controller sent an incorrect signal to the unmanned Soviet space probe Phobos 1, breaking its contact with Earth. The probe was on its way to Mars in a major Soviet program intended as a step toward a manned mission in the next century. A backup probe, Phobos 2, continues to operate normally.
Soviet officials decided to test Buran and Energia with at least two unmanned flights in the wake of the January, 1986, U.S. disaster, in which a shuttle blew up seconds after blast-off, killing the seven crew members on board.
Buran will be used in helping maintain the second generation of Mir orbital space stations, Soviet officials have said, and in launching, retrieving and repairing satellites, much as the U.S. shuttles have done.