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!  

Advertisement

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.


TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

An Iranian Woman Was Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist. Can Activists Save Her?

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

The U.S. Has a New Problem in Syria: The Moderate Rebels Feel Like We’ve Betrayed Them

The Ludicrous Claims Women Are Pitched at “Egg Freezing Parties”

Behold
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 1:11 PM This Company Wants to Fight World Hunger With Flies 
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM An Architectural Crusade Against the Tyranny of Straight Lines
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 2:08 PM We Need to Talk: Terrible Name, Good Show
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Oct. 1 2014 1:53 PM Slate Superfest East How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 1:13 PM The Essence of Gender Roles in Action Movies, in One Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 1:25 PM Japanese Cheerleader Robots Balance and Roll Around on Balls
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 12:01 PM Rocky Snow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.