In addition, three of the six space-station residents who are due to return to Earth on Sept. 8 might end up staying longer. NASA wants to keep the station fully staffed with six to keep research going.
The Soyuz rocket soared right on time from Kazakhstan, and everything seemed to be going perfectly until just over five minutes into the flight. The third stage ignited, but the rocket commanded the engine to shut down because of a problem, said NASA's space-station program manager, Mike Suffredini.
All contact with the spacecraft was lost. Russian space officials declared it a total failure after reports of wreckage falling with a deafening roar in a remote area of Siberia.
"The explosion was so strong that for [60 miles], glass almost flew out of the windows," Alexander Borisov, head of the Choisky region in Russia's Altai province, was quoted by the state news agency RIA Novosti as saying.
Without the shuttles, NASA is counting on Russia, Europe, and Japan - as well as private U.S. business - to keep the space station stocked. And the Russians will transport astronauts back and forth until U.S. private industry can pick up the human load.
At a news briefing, Suffredini said the Sept. 22 launch of a new three-member crew may need to be delayed, depending on how the accident investigation goes. The cargo ship, called Progress, was carrying three tons of supplies.
The three station residents due to return to Earth on Sept. 8 are American Ronald Garan Jr. and Russians Andrey Borisenko and Alexander Samokutyaev, who have been on the station since April. Suffredini said their medical status and exposure to cosmic radiation would be taken into account before any decision is made to keep them in orbit an extra month or two.
Their Soyuz capsule, which is docked to the station, can remain safely in orbit for up to seven months.
"We've always known this was a risk," Suffredini said, "and I very much expect that we'll, together with our Russian colleagues, sort out the anomaly and get comfortable with the next flight."
Another Russian supply ship is due to launch in October. A European freighter is to blast off with supplies in March, and a Japanese one in May. The station easily could go until then, Suffredini said.