Wednesday, September 07, 2011

NASA Chief: Station Evacuation Unlikely

NASA is confident its Russian partners will find and fix the root cause of an Aug 24 Soyuz U rocket failure in time to avoid evacuating the International Space Station, U.S. space agency chief Charlie Bolden said today.

"We're getting to the point where we're going to satisfy ourselves that we can launch an unmanned vehicle to demonstrate that Soyuz is still okay, and then we'll fly the crew up on a normal Soyuz mission later this fall," Bolden, a former shuttle pilot and mission commander, said

"So the possibility of de-manning station is always something you think about, but it's not something that is high on my list of concerns right now, because we don't feel that is something that we're going to have to do."

Bolden is at NASA's Kennedy Space Center this week to watch the planned launch Thursday of a United Launch Alliance Delta II Heavy rocket with a NASA spacecraft that will map the gravitational field of the moon.

The 125-foot-tall rocket is slated to blast off from Launch Complex 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:37 a.m. Thursday. A second opportunity would come at 9:16 a.m. if need be.

The weather forecast for launch continues to call for a 60 percent chance that thunderstorms or thick electrically charged clouds will prohibit launch. A rocket flying in those conditions could trigger destructive bolts of lightning.

A potential evacuation of the International Space Station became a possibility after a robotic Russian supply ship bound for the outpost was lost in a launch failure. An engine powering the third stage of the rocket shut down in flight, and the Soyuz and its cargo broke apart during a resulting atmospheric reentry.

The Soyuz FG rockets used to launch people to the station have a similar third-stage engine, so Russian engineers want to make sure they resolve the problem before launching the next outpost crew.

Three of six astronauts and cosmonauts on the station now are scheduled to return to Earth next week. The other three are due back in mid-November. Bolden said investigators do not think there is a generic problem with the Soyuz rockets.

A three-person crew including U.S. astronaut Dan Burbank had been slated to launch Sept. 21.

That crew "is still in training and ready to go when we say they're going to go," Bolden said "And once we've flown Soyuz and satisfied ourselves that we understand the root cause of the problem that caused the Progress loss, then we'll fly and we'll get the next increment to station."

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