If you want to get where you’re going (and where you’re going is space) there’s nothing like a Soyuz rocket. The venerable Russian booster was first launched in 1966 and has been flying ever since, reliably delivering cargo and crews to low Earth orbit—except, that is, when it fails. That, alas, appears to be the case at the moment.
A Progress cargo vehicle, destined for the International Space Station (ISS), was launched atop a Soyuz on April 28 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and while it reached orbit as planned just minutes later, everything since then has been something else entirely. The ship, carrying 2.6 tons of supplies—including propellant, oxygen, water, spare parts, crew clothing and spacewalk hardware, as well as a commemorative replica of the Soviet victory banner raised above the German Reichstag building 70 years ago this May—began what NASA has dubbed a “slow spin,” but which looks, from a video shot from within the spacecraft, like a pretty fast one. No matter how it’s described, any out-of-control spin is a very bad thing.
The vehicle had been launched when the ISS was in position to allow the Progress to rendezvous with it after a relatively quick, four-orbit, six-hour chase. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has now changed that to a more traditional 34-orbit—or 2.1 day—pursuit, in hopes of opening up enough time to fix what is wrong with the ship.
The problem appears to have been caused by the failure of two radar antennas to deploy as planned. The Joint Spacecraft Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, Calif., reported that it detected 44 pieces of debris in the vicinity of the spacecraft. The significance of that is unclear—the Progress sheds a shroud before going to work in orbit and some debris could have been left behind—but it’s not a good sign.
None of this represents anything close to an emergency for the ISS crew. “The spacecraft was not carrying any supplies critical for the United States Operating Segment (USOS) of the station,” said NASA spokesman Dan Huot in an e-mail to TIME. “Both the Russian and USOS segments…continue to operate normally and are adequately supplied well beyond the next planned resupply flight.”
But the problem comes at an unhandy time for Russia. Even as Roscosmos was fighting to right the Soyuz, a Dragon resupply vehicle, successfully launched by California-based SpaceX, was docked to the station and going through five weeks of unloading. Both SpaceX and the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences—which flies the Antares supply vehicle—are under contract to make cargo runs to the station. Progress has a far longer success record than either of the comparative upstarts, but the current malfunction is the second since 2011, when another Progress spun out of control just 325 seconds after launch and crashed into the Kazakh steppe.
Roscosmos has enjoyed a monopoly on manned space flight to the station ever since the shuttles were retired in 2011, and briefly owned the market for unmanned runs too—at least until the Dragon made its first successful trip in 2012. By 2017, both Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft are supposed to begin carrying crews to the station. That will hurt more than Russia’s ego: Roscosmos charges $70 million per seat for passengers, and Russia—pinched by low oil prices—could sorely use the cash. It’s not as if SpaceX and Boeing will fly folks for free, of course—the transition to private suppliers means someone’s got to make a profit—but SpaceX founder Elon Musk likes to speak about how important it is to “repatriate” the money the U.S. is currently paying Russia. It’s an idea that has special appeal when relations between Moscow and Washington remain chilly.
None of this means anyone should be dissing the Soyuz or the Progress. They’re sweet machines that have been doing their jobs for a long, long time. And the Russian engineers who build and fly them have proved themselves pros. But technology changes, time passes and markets move. Problems with the Progress can only help move them somewhere else.