NASA ponders de-crewing the space station in November

The entire universe in blog form
Aug. 30 2011 10:13 AM

NASA ponders de-crewing the space station in November

Universe Today -- a great site, and one you need in your daily web-reading routine -- has a story up that NASA may have to bring the crew on the International Space Station back to Earth by mid-November.

This drastic measure has not yet been decided, nor will it be for a couple of months. The basic reason is two-fold:

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  


1) The Russians are having a problem with their unmanned Soyuz rockets used to resupply the station. A rocket launch last week failed to achieve orbit due to an anomaly in the third stage, and the capsule was lost. The astronauts on board the space station have supplies that can last for quite some time (the final Shuttle mission brought up quite a bit), so the loss of the cargo was not so much an issue. The real problem is...

2) The ISS currently has two Soyuz capsules docked to bring astronauts home. These docked capsules have a lifespan of about 200 days due to fuel issues. One of them is supposed to bring three of the six astronauts home in September, leaving one capsule for the other three in case of a problem. A new crew of three was supposed to go up later in September, bringing the total crew of the ISS back up to six, but that mission may be delayed. If there's only one capsule docked, only three people can leave in case of emergency, so the new crew must wait until a new capsule docks before going up.

If the Russians cannot get their rockets working by mid-November -- about the time that 200 day period is up for the second docked capsule* -- then the astronauts either take that capsule down, or stay aboard with no safe way to return home. The safe thing to do then is de-crew the station.

The Universe Today article has the details. Mind you, even if we still had the Shuttle program going, as I understand it this would still be an issue. For one, the problem is with the limited lifespan of the Soyuz capsules already docked, and getting a Shuttle up there wouldn't help that (except to be able to take the entire crew back to Earth; without a working docked Soyuz they still can't leave astronauts there). Second, planning a Shuttle mission takes a long time, and I doubt that NASA could've gotten one put together that quickly (unless, by coincidence, they had one ready to go anyway, but even then they still need a working, docked Soyuz for the remaining crew). Third, the reason the Shuttle retired is because they were getting old, and each launch was a bigger risk than the last.

So the least risky thing to do, if the Russians can't figure out and fix the Soyuz rocket problem, is to bring the crew home, and wait to put the next crew up there when things are back online. The ISS can operate relatively safely in orbit for a while without people on board; that's not optimal, of course, but possible.

This sucks, but it could be worse. That rocket failure was unmanned, so no one was lost. The ISS crew does have a lot of supplies, so they're in no immediate danger. The best thing to hope for here is that the Russians get this fixed -- and there's word they may have found what the problem was, an important first step toward the solution. I'll note that SpaceX is looking to have a capsule dock with the ISS in November, but it's not clear exactly how this new situation affects that plan. The Dragon capsule is not human-rated, and unless there is clear and present danger to the crew they can't return in it.

* The situation is actually complex, having to do with landing sites lining up with the ISS orbit as well as shortened daylight hours as winter approaches, limiting landing times.



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 9:03 AM My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. And Then I Found Myself With Someone Like Dad.
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 8:27 AM Only Science Fiction Can Save Us! What sci-fi gets wrong about income inequality.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.