The $100 billion dollar International Space Station (ISS), centerpiece of NASA’s next decade of human space exploration, may have to be temporarily evacuated if the Russians can’t resolve a problem with the Soyuz rocket. While NASA officials soft-pedaled the impact of de-manning ISS at an August 29 press conference, there would be impacts to both ongoing research and U.S. cargo resupply demonstrations.
All Progress and Soyuz flights to the space station are currently on hold until a cause is found for the Progress 44 resupply crash last week and a fix of the Soyuz rocket’s third stage is implemented and flight tested a couple of times.
The time-limiting factor for people to stay on ISS is a maximum 200 day in-orbit life for the Soyuz crew capsules that take people to and from the station, with the limiting factors propellant and the propulsion system. It would take “a lot of work,” said NASA ISS manager Mike Suffredini, to certify Soyuz beyond 200 days in orbit. It’s not a palatable option for NASA or Russia to push the safety envelope with one problem – an issue with the Soyuz third stage rocket – already on the table.
A September 8 return for three of the six ISS crew members is “not going to happen,” Suffredini said. The three will stay onboard for another “week or so” getting in some bonus research time and then return while there’s enough daylight at a landing site in Kazakhstan. After that, the site goes into a “dark cycle” until the end of October, but waiting that long would push one of the two 3 man Soyuz capsules currently docked at the space station to the end of its 200 day in-orbit life.
Once commander Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev and Ron Garan return to earth in mid-September, ISS would then have three people on board and the Russians would have to identify the problem with the Soyuz rocket, fix it, and then test the fix by mid-November in order to enable a new crew flight before the second Soyuz capsule starts rubbing up against its in-orbit limit and Kazakhstan goes into another dark cycle and the bitterness of December. Not a lot of enthusiasm for finding astronauts in deep snow, blowing winds and sub-zero temperatures.
But there’d be a big bite in research time with only a three man crew. Using a six man crew, there’s about 35 to 40 hours a week of man-tended research taking place aboard ISS. Most automated research, such as the AMS particle experiment, could continue to be monitored and run from the ground, but human-tended experiments and human research would be “postponed.”
Can the Russians find and test a fix by mid-November when a new Soyuz and crew would have to go up? Russian space expert and NBC News consultant Jim Oberg, believes so. "I think the technical solution to this probably will be evident pretty quickly, then isolated to a component, and isolated to a production batch," Oberg said in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. If identified quickly, a fix could be tested in at least two October launches, including a GLOBALSTAR commercial satellite launch and the Progress 45 ISS resupply mission.
If Russia can’t get a fix tested, the other three members of the ISS crew would come back to earth in mid-November, leaving the space station on autopilot with a series of jumpers and hatches between modules closed.
Suffredini said the station is capable of operating in an unattended mode indefinitely, so long as the vehicle doesn’t have redundancy failures in critical systems, such as the gyros that maintain attitude control. In some respects, the station is easier to run without crew, since there’s less power being used for life support and experiments.
If a rocket fix is done by mid-November, it would leave the ISS with a 3 man crew – three leaving in the old Soyuz, three onboard in a fresh one. A second manned Soyuz flight to staff back up to a 6 man crew could happen in December with some reshuffling of the Russian flight manifest.
Unclear is whether or not a SpaceX cargo resupply demonstration flight of Falcon 9 and Dragon would take place in late November with a December 7 docking. IF there’s no crew onboard, Dragon cannot berth with ISS; two people are required to monitor Dragon as it approaches the station, grab it with a robotic arm, and bring it for docking. Suffredini indicated that a 3 person crew could handle the demonstration, but Russian crew may have to be trained in Dragon capsule operations
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Edited by Rich Steeves