The International Space Station might have to be temporarily abandoned if the investigation into last week's Russian Soyuz rocket failure stretches into mid-November, a senior NASA official said today.
Two factors could prompt an unprecedented de-staffing of the outpost: the certified orbital lifetimes of the two Soyuz lifeboats now at the station, and flight rules that call for crews to return to Earth during daylight, NASA International Space Station Program Manager Mike Suffredini said.
As it stands, three station crewmates scheduled to return to Earth on Sept. 8 will remain onboard the outpost at least an extra week while the investigation into the loss of a robotic Progress space freighter continues.
A third-stage Soyuz U rocket shutdown caused the failure last Wednesday. Investigators are trying to determine the exact cause. The Soyuz FG rockets used to transport crews to and from the station has a similar third stage, so investigators want to pinpoint the cause of the failure and return the Soyuz U rocket fleet to service before launching the next crew to the station.
Two Russian cosmonauts and American astronaut Ron Garan likely will return to Earth before Sept. 19 -- the last daylight landing opportunity that month in the central steppes of Kazakhstan. The next daylight landing opportunity would not come until Oct. 27, about 10 days after the 200-day certified orbital lifetime of the Soyuz spacecraft that will provide their ride back to Earth.
The three other station crew members, including U.S. astronaut Mike Fossum, would return before Nov. 19 -- the last daylight landing opportunity that month. The certified life of their Soyuz space taxi will expire before the next daylight landing opportunity in late December.
The planned Sept. 21 launch of a new station crew that includes American astronaut Dan Burbank is being postponed indefinitely.
A joint project of the U.S., Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan, the $100 billion space station has been continuously staffed since the first expedition crew opened the outpost for business in November 2000.
ABOUT THE IMAGE: Click to enlarge the NASA image of a backlit International Space Station soaring 220 miles above the planet Earth. You can also click the enlarged image to get a bigger, more detailed view.