Space agency officials from the United States and Russia are considering the withdrawal of all personnel from the International Space Station (ISS), following the failed launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket last week.
The unmanned Soyuz rocket was transporting supplies to the ISS last week when it suffered a malfunction and crashed in Siberia. Russian scientists have not yet identified the cause of the failure but said they were confident they could fix the problem before mid-November, when the last of the current crew onboard the ISS are scheduled to leave.
Mike Suffredini, NASA’s space station program manager, said in a news conference that the two space agencies would review all possibilities regarding the future of the $1-billion space laboratory.
The NASA-led space station has been continuously staffed by astronauts since November 2000, but if the Soyuz rockets are not given the green light in time, the US space agency will remove all personnel from the ISS and leave it running on automated systems.
Three of the six astronauts currently onboard the station are due to leave around mid-September. Before the last three leave in November, Russia will be required to complete two successful launches of unmanned Soyuz rockets, otherwise the crew will not be replaced.
“Space Handyman” Dextre
Suffredini assured the public that personnel aboard the ISS were perfectly safe and that there was no reason to be concerned about their return to earth. He admitted that leaving the station unmanned for the first time in over a decade would be a risk for NASA’s investment and that it could potentially lead to unexpected malfunctions getting out of hand.
However he said experts on the ground have access to all the necessary tools to ensure the station remains fully operational.
One such tool is the Canadian “space handyman” Dextre, a robot that earlier in the week replaced a defective circuit-breaker on the ISS. This kind of repair would normally have to be done by space walk, a procedure that has become more or less routine for astronauts on the space station but still carries considerable risks.
Since the permanent grounding of NASA’s space shuttle, Soyuz rockets have been the only available means of transporting astronauts back and forth from the ISS.
And that is how it will remain for the immediate future, as although the list of private spaceflight companies continues to grow, commercial rockets are many years away from satisfying safety requirements for sending humans into orbit.
SpaceX : First Private Company to Launch Spacecraft into Orbit
Last December, SpaceX became the first private company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and bring it back to earth undamaged. NASA had previously requested the company complete another successful test flight before attempting an unmanned docking mission to the ISS, but has since decided to step up operations.
SpaceX signed a $1.6 billion contract to blast 12 cargo shipments to the orbiting laboratory and launches will get underway as early as next year if the docking flight comes off without a hitch.
The next target for the company is to provide an alternative to Russia’s Soyuz rockets in the human space transport industry.
Kirstin Grantham, a SpaceX spokeswoman said: "The United States should not be entirely reliant on Russia to carry American astronauts to the space station. We need alternatives for carrying astronauts and we need them as soon as possible."
Key Statistics – International Space Station (source: Boeing)
- The International Space Station is the most complex project ever undertaken in scientific and space history.
- In 2005 ,the ISS was declared a National Laboratory as a research center for tomorrow’s technology in industrial, communications and medical fields.
- The US solar panels on the ISS cover an area of 38,400 square feet, the equivalent of eight basketball courts.
- The two solar arrays stretch 240 feet, which is longer than the wingspan of a Boeing 777.
- The ISS has more living space than a standard five-bedroom house.