Published 7:56 PM EDT Oct 12, 2018
MELBOURNE, Fla. – NASA and its partners in a few weeks will celebrate 18 years of uninterrupted human presence on the International Space Station, a remarkable achievement dating to the first long-duration crew’s arrival on Nov. 2, 2000.
But Thursday’s aborted launch by a Russian rocket – one that provides astronauts’ only ride to the station – raised the risk that crews might need to abandon the $100 billion laboratory complex early next year if the rocket issue isn’t resolved quickly.
The Soyuz spacecraft slated to take three Expedition 57 crew members home must depart the station by early January, unless officials waive the usual limits on how much time it can spend in orbit.
If a new crew doesn’t arrive before then, the station could be left empty for the first time in nearly two decades.
Oct. 12: US, Russian astronauts reach Russia after emergency landing following failed rocket launch to ISS
"To step away from having people permanently in space would be a huge psychological and technical blow,” said Wayne Hale, a space industry consultant and former manager of NASA’s shuttle program. “Uncrewing the station is something that’s been talked about and planned for, but it’s not really a good option.”
So far, Russian officials say they expect quick results from an investigation into what went wrong with the Soyuz FG rocket that blasted off from Kazakhstan at 4:40 a.m. EDT Thursday with the Soyuz capsule carrying rookie NASA astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin.
The pair survived unscathed, landing safely under parachutes after their capsule escaped from the rocket two minutes into the launch and flew a ballistic trajectory back to the ground. They flew back to Russia on Friday.
Early attention is focused on a separation problem with one of the rocket’s four first-stage boosters, which may have hit and damaged the second stage, causing its engines to shut down.
“It just reemphasizes that this is dangerous business,” said Reid Wiseman, NASA’s deputy chief astronaut. “It’s a good system, it’s a reliable system. I have complete confidence in the Russians and the quality of their work."
Before the mishap, the current station crew – NASA's Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos – was scheduled to return to Earth on Dec. 13, and another three-person crew was scheduled to launch Dec. 20. Keeping that schedule now would be remarkable.
The program might first fly a robotic Progress cargo craft, which uses a very similar rocket. It also might consider launching a Soyuz without anyone on board to give the station crew a fresh ride.
Oct. 11: NASA: Astronauts 'in great shape' after emergency rocket landing
The Soyuz typically is limited to about 210 days in orbit because of a concern about degradation of hydrogen peroxide fuel in thrusters.
If astronauts do end up abandoning the station as soon as January, psychological blows aside, current and former space station managers say the space station could fly untended for a long time.
“I wouldn’t worry about it unless you plan on staying that way for over a year, and then I’d start to wring my hands a little bit,” said Mike Suffredini, a former NASA station program manager who now leads Axiom Space, a startup designing private stations. “Even if they have to bring the crew home because the Soyuz times out, they know how to do that, and the vehicle will be fine as long as you don’t have cascading failures in a single system.”
Ground teams control the station’s flight every day, so that wouldn’t change. The departing crew would shut down various systems before it left, including life support.
Suffredini said engineers would carefully study how to shut systems down properly so that they would turn back on when a crew returns.
Oct. 11: Astronauts in good condition after emergency landing, NASA says
Then there’s the nightmare scenario: Cascading failures cause the station to tumble. Spacecraft can’t dock with it. Solar arrays are no longer pointed properly. Batteries begin to die. The football field-length, nearly million-pound station begins an uncontrolled re-entry that could rain debris on populated areas.
“They’re going to be reluctant to evacuate the crew,” said Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut who lived on the station for more than five months in 2004-05. “I’m sure they’re taking a hard look how long they can keep the Soyuz up there.”
Otherwise, options are limited.
“Commercial crew” capsules that Boeing and SpaceX are developing for NASA won’t be ready to fly astronauts from Florida before next summer.
NASA’s independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, formed after the Apollo 1 fire, already has expressed concern about rushing those vehicles into service, potentially compromising safety.
After the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew during re-entry in 2003, Russia’s Soyuz rockets and capsules allowed crews to reach the station and keep it running. They have done so again for more than seven years since NASA's final shuttle mission, but there’s no backup.
“With this issue now, it’s obvious that we no longer have that redundancy, at least until we start flying on a SpaceX or Boeing vehicle, hopefully sometime next year,” said Scott Kelly, a former NASA astronaut who lived on the station for nearly a year in 2015-16. “We’ve lost that capability for a while. It’s a concern, absolutely.”
But Kelly has seen past Russian investigations move swiftly, including one into a Progress failure while he was living on the station. The Progress returned to flight just more than two months later.
So the prospect of an uncrewed station is for now a risk, but it’s difficult to say how likely.
“The Russians are pretty good at this,” Kelly said. “I would suspect that they’ll figure out what happened, put in some new safety measures and go launch as soon as possible, before that other Soyuz runs out of its life on orbit.”
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