Less than two months after the space shuttle program officially ended, NASA is facing another setback, this time regarding the International Space Station. NASA officials confirmed yesterday that it was a possibility that astronauts may need to temporarily abandon the space station this fall.
NASA’s shuttle program ended last month after over 30 years and over 100 missions. Prior to the program’s shutdown, NASA announced that American astronauts would still be active on the International Space Station. Instead of flying in American shuttles, however, American astronauts would be shuttled to the space station by Russian spacecraft. Plans have now changed following the crash of an unmanned Russian spacecraft stocked with supplies that was destroyed last week during liftoff from Kazakhstan.
Russia’s Soyuz rockets, the vehicles that would have taken Americans to the moon, are currently grounded until the cause of the crash is determined. The Russian space agency has put together an investigation team, but the answer to the crash may not be determined for a while. So far, none of the debris from the spacecraft has been discovered, as it landed in a remote and heavily forested area of Siberia.
According to Mike Suffredini, NASA’s space station program manager, if the Soyuz rockets continue to remain out of use past mid-November, it will be impossible to launch any new crews of astronauts before the current crew of the space station is scheduled to leave. The unstable future of the Russian spacecraft could potentially mean the need to vacate the space station.
The launch of the next crew due to head to the International Space Station, scheduled for September 22nd, has already been delayed. In order to keep the space station with a full staff of six for the longest amount of time possible, three of the astronauts currently onboard will remain in space for an extra week; prior to the failure of the Russian supply spacecraft, the astronauts were due to return to Earth on September 8th. Suffredini noted that the astronaut’s extra time on board will further contribute to more scientific research.
If the International Space Station is indeed evacuated, NASA confirmed that it is possible to keep the station operating for as long as necessary, assuming the station’s systems are performing correctly.
The International Space Station, which currently orbits the planet 240 miles above land, was launched in 2000 and cost $100 billion. The space station has never been completely evacuated; ever since its launch, it has been continuously inhabited by astronauts. The only other time NASA considered abandoning the space station was in the wake of the Columbia disaster in 2003. Instead of completely evacuating the space station then, the normally six-person crew was cut down to two astronauts due to the limited lack of supplies.
Currently, the space station is plentifully stocked with supplies; Atlantis, the last shuttle in NASA’s now defunct program, dropped off supplies during its final mission. NASA has noted that due to the amount of supplies onboard, the space station could potentially go on until next summer.
If NASA makes the decision to evacuate the space station, action must be taken soon to accomodate several factors. Both the American and Russian space agencies require that landings must happen at least an hour after dawn and an hour before sunset in order to aid any search or rescue operations that could become necessary. The conditions at Soyuz’s landing site in Kazakhstan could potentially be an issue; the landing window for the first crew closes for five weeks starting September 19th, while the landing window for the second crew closes around November 19th. Because Soyuz spacecraft is only designed to spend about 200 days in space, waiting for a new window of opportunity to open would surpass the 200 day mark.
Photo Credit: nasa.gov/images/content/329096main_earthday1_420.jpg