Abandon the ISS? Maybe not

When you talk to people about manned space, they usually think of two things:  the space shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS).  (Check out the newscast from 1981!  I was a Freshman in high school.  Wow.  Got to love the reporter comment at 1:30:  "It seems like NASA is just one giant acronym."  er...)

Now the shuttle has retired after 30 years of hauling, and without a viable American replacement ready, space-lovers are nervous.  (The commercial replacements are expected to be manned-ready around 2015.  SpaceX with its Dragon capsule and Boeing with the CST-100 are the closest, I believe, though Sierra Nevada, and Blue Origin are also working on their own versions.)  However, at least the ISS was still operating, right?

Then the Russians lost the Soyuz and the space world went into a spin.  The Russians were set to keep the ISS manned and resupplied with it's Soyuz capsules, which they launch from their Progress rockets.  However, the last mission--the first after the shuttle retirement--had problems.  The rocket's third stage failed, and the capsule ended up in crashing in Siberia.  Since then, the news has been proclaiming that we'd have to abandon the ISS.

Now, however, it looks like that's not as likely as we'd thought. The Russian space agency, Roscosmos says they found the problem--a clogged fuel line--and are checking their other rockets for the problem.  They're of course also calling for tighter quality control, which should be a big duh.  However, according to the commission's report (quoted in Universe Today), this defect was an accident.  So, it looks like they will be able to get a new team up in time.
Ouch! Our bad--we fix soon!

Here's the schedule as near as I've been able to piece it together:
 *There are 6 crewmen on the ISS right now.  Three are to come home September 16.  That's a week later than planned, and they are using one of the emergency Soyuz vehicles on the station.  I believe the reason they are coming down then and not just hanging around is that the Soyuz capsules have a "shelf life" and if they wait any longer, they risk the capsule malfunctioning on return.
* The other three crewmen--an American (Mike Fossum), a Russian (Sergie Volkov) and a Japanese (Satoshi Furukawa), are planning on staying until mid-November.
* There are two scheduled Soyuz flights for October 8 and Oct 26.  They might move these up to test fixes to the Progress Rocket.

So if the test flights go well, we might be able to get astronauts to the ISS in time to keep it manned.

What happens if we don't?  NASA ground control is looking to see what shut down procedures they need to do to keep the station safe and ready for astronauts once the Progress rockets are ready.  The crew on the ISS are making video tutorials for the systems in case they don't get to brief the next crew.  (Frankly, this sounds like it should have been SOP to me, anyway.)  So, it looks like we might lose some experiments that need watching, and if anything malfunctions and no one is there to fix it, we could have problems, but the station itself will be there, waiting and ready for brave men and women to call it home again.

One thing I'm not sure about and have not seen addressed is what impact this will have on the commercial space side.  SpaceX is supposed to send an unmanned Dragon capsule up on Nov 30 as it's next step toward becoming a viable supporter of the station, but if no one is there to get it, I don't think they can launch.  It's too bad they aren't a little closer to manned.  From the utter lack of silence about them jumping in to "rescue" the station, I'm guessing that even Elon Musk doesn't feel ready to fly humans just yet.  It's too bad.  What a story that would have been!
Dragon to the rescue!  Maybe in a couple of years...

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Virginia L. Jennings said...

Very interesting Karina, thanks for letting us know more about what is going on with the ISS- you had me concerned in your last blog ;)

Karina Fabian said...

I was worried, too, as were a lot of folks. You can still see some headlines saying that NASA is planning to abandon the station. In fact, they are making contingency plans, but only so they don't get caught unawares.

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