Like the Mary Celeste, the International Space Station (ISS) could be floating empty, devoid of humans by November. However, unlike the Mary Celeste, we’ll know exactly what happened to the crew.
In the wake of the Russian Progress vehicle crash shortly after launch on Aug. 24, a chain of events has been set into motion that could result in the decision not to fly astronauts into orbit. If this happens, the ISS will be temporarily mothballed before the end of the year to avoid landing astronauts during the harsh Kazakh winter.
Investigations are under way as to why the motor of the third stage of the Soyuz-U rocket switched off early, preventing Progress M-12M from reaching orbit. The unmanned cargo vehicle crashed minutes later in Siberia, 1,000 miles east of the launch site in Kazakhstan. Fortunately, there were no reported casualties on the ground.
So why are there concerns about getting astronauts into orbit when the failure happened to the rocket carrying an unmanned vehicle?
Well, the Soyuz-U rocket’s third stage is almost identical to equipment used on the Soyuz-FG booster used to propel manned Soyuz vehicles to the ISS. Yes, those are the same taxi rides NASA now depends on to get U.S. astronauts to the orbiting outpost.
In fact, since the retirement of the shuttle fleet, it is currently the only human-rated ride into space on the planet.
According to Spaceflight Now, the Russian space agency Roscosmos is carrying out an inquiry into the agency’s plans for their manned spaceflight program, space manufacturing quality and a board has been set up to recommend corrective actions.
Naturally, the Progress failure has spooked NASA.
“We will understand, to our satisfaction, the anomaly, what is believed to be the cause and how they resolved it,” said Michael Suffredini, NASA’s space station program manager. “If we’re not happy, we won’t put our astronauts on the Soyuz.”
De-manning the ISS could happen if there’s no solution to the investigation found by November. At that time, the remaining crew — NASA flight engineer Michael Fossum, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa — will leave the ISS empty.
Although the trio’s return vehicle, Soyuz TMA-02M, could remain docked until December or January, the conditions around the landing site will be considered too harsh for a safe landing after November.
Should no resolution be found, 11 years of continuous manned presence on the ISS will come to an end, experiments will be shelved and there will likely be lengthy delays to SpaceX’s plans of carrying out an unmanned docking of their Dragon vehicle by the end of the year.
I wonder if Robonaut 2 (R2) could be programmed to carry out the basic duties of a skeleton (robot) crew? Who needs humans, anyway.
Image: An empty outpost? (NASA)