Last month marks two important events for those who are concerned about the reliable support and future of the International Space Station. It not only marks the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program, but it also marks the serious setbacks associated with depending on Russia’s resources for transportation support. These setbacks are triggered by the crash of an unmanned Russian cargo ship (Progress 44) on the 24th of August.
Although currently there are six astronauts residing in the space station, the expectation is that they will need to return to Earth (by way of the two Russian Soyuz spacecrafts that are currently docked to the ISS) before the ongoing investigation is completed and a new shuttle is set to arrive. Experts familiar with the traditional timeframe these investigations take are hopeful but uncertain as to whether it can be complete by the astronauts’ scheduled return in mid-November.
The immediate contingency plan outlined by NASA’s space station program manager Mike Suffredini involves ensuring that the ISS remains in orbit indefinitely by piloting it remotely from the ground; however, this would be the first time since 2000 that the $100 billion orbiting lab is left unmanned. Others, like retired NASA astronaut Dr. Leroy Chiao, have raised legitimate concerns about the risks that come with operating the station unmanned. During a recent interview with NPR, Dr. Chiao discusses the potential challenges of getting back onboard the station once it has been unmanned and explains that small failures can cause the station to lose altitude control; causing it to ultimately tumble out of control. If this was to occur, large parts of the space station would also pose a hazard on land masses after surviving re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
Even though the recent crash is unfortunately timed, there are several other options that become available as early as next year. As of right now, there is a European cargo ship known as ATV-3 that is scheduled to dock with the ISS in March of next year. Meanwhile, Space Exploration Technologies Corporations has plans of sending their (SpaceX) spacecraft to dock with the ISS this December if their upcoming tests go according to plan.
Fortunately, there are several paths to guaranteeing the safety to the International Space Station. Not only does NASA have enough time to overcome any potential challenges associated with leaving the station unmanned, but it also has other vehicles that can arrive soon after the mid-November deadline; allowing the station to remain continuously manned if the decision is made to have the astronauts scheduled time on the station extended.
NASA’s Space Shuttle Program Officially Ends After Final Celebration. Space.com. (2011). Retrieved September 6, 2011.
How the Russian shuttle crash affects the International Space Station. MNN.com. (2011). Retrieved September 6, 2011.
Astronauts May Evacuate Space Station in November, NASA Says. Space.com. (2011). Retrieved September 6, 2011.
Could the International Space Station be Abandoned. NPR.org. (2011). Retrieved September 6, 2011.
SpaceX Craft to Head to Space Station. NPR.org. (2011). Retrieved September 6, 2011.