POLITICS
08/30/2011 02:25 EDT | Updated 10/30/2011 05:12 EDT

Canadian astronaut does not expect Russian rocket failure to delay 2012 flight

MONTREAL - Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield says the recent failure of an unmanned Russian cargo spacecraft won't affect his trip to the International Space Station in late 2012.

He is also playing down reports the giant space lab may have to be abandoned in the coming months once the two crews currently on board return to Earth.

Hadfield, who is training in Moscow, is scheduled to travel to the orbiting space outpost next year in a capsule atop a Soyuz rocket.

The rocket will be similar to the one which crashed shortly after takeoff last week.

"The rocket that failed is...basically the same rocket that carries cosmonauts and astronauts to space," Hadfield told The Canadian Press in an interview from Russia.

"It's the same one that I'm training to fly."

But Hadfield, who celebrated his 52nd birthday on Monday, doesn't believe his third trip into space will be delayed.

"It would be very unlikely if anything that we're seeing right now could affect flights — even six months from now, let alone 16 months from now, when the flight that I'm on is due to launch," he said.

The Russian vehicles are now the only way to travel to the station since the retirement of U.S. space shuttles in early July.

Officials are still trying to figure out what caused the rocket's third stage engine to malfunction as a cargo ship was preparing to deliver supplies, like food and water.

Hadfield, who was born in Sarnia, Ont., notes that a number of European, Japanese and American resupply spacecraft are scheduled to travel to the space station in the next few months.

He also points out that the Russians have two unmanned Soyuz rocket launches before the next manned crew is scheduled to go up, possibly in early November.

"We want to have a couple of launches without people on board and, by then, we will have a much better idea of the safety and risk of launching three men into space," Hadfield added.

But in the meantime, there's a possibility the space station might need to be temporarily unmanned after the six astronauts who are currently circling the Earth return home.

Three astronauts due to leave in early September after a six-month stay will now remain on board at least an extra week.

Hadfield says he's heard from several sources they will be brought back on Sept. 16.

The launch of the next crew to replace them in late September has now been delayed indefinitely because of the rocket accident.

The remaining three are supposed to be replaced in mid-November.

But their replacements might be delayed as Russian space officials work to determine the cause of the rocket failure and make repairs.

While it's possible the space station might have to circle the Earth without humans on board, Hadfield doubts that will be necessary.

"I would be very surprised we would have to de-man the station when we have this much warning," he said.

"We will figure out a way around it, I think."

Coincidentally, Hadfield and his crew were practising emergency procedures the day before the rocket crashed last Wednesday.

He says even if there were astronauts on board during a Soyuz rocket malfunction, the capsule would separate and it could be flown and parachuted to the ground.

"We can be sitting on the pad and have the rocket explode underneath us, come apart and we have a rescue system of smaller propulsion rockets and things," Hadfield said.

"If this had happened with people on board, they would not have gotten to the space station, but they would be safely in the hills in Russia doing survival techniques."

In March 2013, Hadfield will be the first Canadian to command a spaceship when he takes charge of the space station during the second portion of his six-month stay.