Is It Time To Leave The Space Station?

The crash of an unmanned Russian rocket has NASA considering evacuating the International Space Station. With the shuttles retired, the station relies on Russian rockets to bring astronauts and supplies. Reporter Mark Carreau discusses the future of the space station.

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IRA FLATOW, host: A crash last month of a Russian rocket carrying a cargo ship to the International Space Station has NASA re-evaluating whether or not to send more astronauts to the space station, and it's possible they may actually evacuate the station altogether, at least for now. There are six astronauts at the station. Three of them are supposed to leave next week and be replaced at the end of September. But with the shuttle program a thing of the past, the station relies on Russian rockets to get people and cargo to the station.

So until they're sure about the cause of the rocket crash and can make sure it won't happen again, no one wants to take a chance using the Russian rockets to ferry astronauts. Joining me now to talk about it is my guest, Mark Carreau. He is contributing writer for Aviation Week. He covered space - he has covered space for 20 years as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle. Welcome, Mark Carreau, to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MARK CARREAU: Well, good afternoon. Thank you.

FLATOW: Were you surprised by this crash?

CARREAU: I was.

FLATOW: Because?

CARREAU: Well, the progress has been very, very reliable. And its booster system, the Soyuz, has also been reliable, carrying not only cargo but crews to the space station. And I was also surprised that this happened so soon after the shuttle was retired. That was surprising to me.

FLATOW: Is this all just coincidence then?

CARREAU: Well, I believe so. You know, there's an investigation under way that is Russian and, you know, you just never know. You really have to bore down in these sorts of things and look for not only the direct cause but maybe contributing causes. There might be little subtle things, changes, something that entered the big picture of success that led to a problem.

FLATOW: Is this the same rocket that would carry astronauts?

CARREAU: It's very, very similar. There are some differences in the third stage, and that's the stage they had problem - problems with. But they're essentially the same.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. The investigation the Russians are doing, have they come to any conclusion so far, what caused it?

CARREAU: None that they've disclosed. They pointed to a problem with a gas generator, perhaps. And they're looking for wreckage in a very rugged terrain in Siberia. And the weather has been bad. It's wooded, mountainous. And it's uncertain whether the wreckage would actually help, so it might be more of a data chase. But the gas generator is part of the turbo system in the rocket engine.

FLATOW: That's an important part.

CARREAU: Well, if you're going to space, you want to get all the way there if you can.

FLATOW: I could not have put it better myself. You don't want to get halfway into space, right. I agree(ph) . So what is - is there a real fear now that, well, we shouldn't go and we should - once those astronauts come back, we shouldn't send anybody until we know what actually happened?

CARREAU: Well, if you look back at the way things have operated in the past, you don't launch more astronauts on the Soyuz until you know what happened and you have a way to fix it and you test the fix and make sure that you really have found everything and you know what happened - you have a good story - and then you can decide to proceed.

FLATOW: So right now we have six people on the space station. Give us the plan of what's going to happen with that.

CARREAU: Well, three crew are coming back on September 15th to 16th. They'll undock and land on the 16th in Kazakhstan. Those guys have been up - will have been up for 163 days. There's an American and two Russians that will be coming back. That will leave the station with three people. And they're supposed to come back on November 16th after a similar stay. And at that point, before they come back, that's really the time where the Russians and NASA and the other partners will have to make a decision to extend them or bring them back and leave the station unstaffed, hopefully temporarily.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is there an effort? Have people said, you know, we still have the old space shuttle around, maybe we should pull it out of its minor mothballs that it's in and take it away from those museums and bring one back or something?

CARREAU: Well, I think that horse is really out of the barn, unfortunately. And I'm not sure - you know, there's some discussion about whether that would really help. The Soyuz plays many roles. It takes astronauts up and back, but it also stays on the space station as a lifeboat, so that if you had some sort of a problem, a - let's say a fire or a piece of debris slammed into the space station, someone got critically ill, they could come back quickly on the Soyuz. The shuttle could not stay docked to the station and perform that lifeboat function. It's limited to maybe a 20, 22 day mission to the space station. So while it would certainly be nice to have the shuttle, it might not solve this problem. It probably wouldn't.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So they're going to be bringing the lifeboat back with them with the next bunch of astronauts leaving?

CARREAU: There'll be three crew still aboard the station - a Russian, an American and a Japanese - and they will also have a lifeboat. But if they come back, there'll be nobody on the station, and of course no lifeboats until another crew launches.

FLATOW: What about - we had Elon Musk on a few weeks ago talking about SpaceX and his plans to launch his first cargo to the space station in November. Is that a possibility, using that craft?

CARREAU: Well, not for crew. SpaceX and the capsule they're using for cargo that they'll be making this test demonstration flight in November, December, will be outfitted for crew, but they're probably a few years away. There's maybe four companies right now that you could say are really in the commercial space transportation race. And the timeframe for them being ready is rather aggressive, but you're looking at 2015, 2016, probably.

FLATOW: Yeah. So it's not practical.

CARREAU: Well, you've got a four-year gap there, I guess.

FLATOW: Yeah. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

I'm Ira Flatow, talking about the International Space Station with Mark Carreau. Is there a danger of leaving the space station up there unmanned?

CARREAU: Well, the risk goes up, and NASA readily acknowledges that. And of course NASA is the managing partner. But the other partners, there's 15 nations, they all have an investment or a stake in the space station, so there's a lot of interest in handling this right. And the U.S. would like to show, demonstrate its leadership in working with the Russians and the other countries so that in the future, if there are missions planned for the moon or asteroids or Mars, that the other partners will continue to look to the U.S. to help lead, guide, manage.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But what could go wrong with the space station if nobody's in it?

CARREAU: Well, there's probably a lot of small things and a lot of backups to deal with those. There's probably some big problems that we've seen some examples of in the past that could be really difficult to handle, and if you like, I can...

FLATOW: Yeah, give us one.

CARREAU: OK. Well, let's go back right about a year ago. It was late July of 2010, and an external cooling pump on the space station - a device that circulates an ammonia coolant through a big outstretched radiator on the outside of the space station - failed. That meant that you couldn't cool a lot of the electronics on the space station, so they had to bring the amount of power down, approximately half of what it would normally be.

In order to fix that problem, two astronauts carried out a series of space walks rather quickly in August of 2010 to replace that pump. They were fortunate they had a spare already on the space station, but that's a kind of thing where an astronaut is key to recovering a, you know, a vital system.

Another concern of mine, although I think that the concern has fallen, would be the gyroscopes, and these are the big four flywheels that spin thousands of RPM that steady and guide the space station as it goes around the Earth. They're electrically powered.

If you had a major power failure and you couldn't spin those gyros, then you have to go to a fallback and that's the Russian Progress, and the fuel it brings and the fuel that's onboard the space station where you can fire thrusters to steady the station. That fuel, though, is depleted as you have to steer the station and soon it has to be replaced, and that's a Progress function. And the Europeans also have a spacecraft called the ATV that can supply the space station with fuel.

But, again, you're relying on a backup that's driven by the amount of fuel. And if you're having to fire a lot of jets to steady the station, you're using fuel faster.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. So right now the U.S. and the Russians don't have a way to get people in space at this point?

CARREAU: Yes, that's...

FLATOW: So we're now down to the Chinese.

CARREAU: Well, it's - boy, that's a really interesting question. And you know, they've wanted to be a partner in this project since the beginning, and there's just a lot of political international issues that have not permitted that. And they're spacecraft is similar to the Soyuz.

FLATOW: Could they step in?

CARREAU: Say again, I'm sorry?

FLATOW: Could they step in, in a pinch?

CARREAU: I don't see any way. I don't - I just don't. I just don't see it. It would - things would - I can't see it. The lines are just too - too stark now.

FLATOW: NASA won't do anything with the Chinese, is what you're saying.

CARREAU: Well, I don't think if they got together and decided to do it today they could ratchet the plan up to execute something that quickly. I mean, I don't think it would slow down the kind of response that's needed now to deal with the Soyuz problem.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right, Mark, we're going to - thank you for taking time to be with us, and we'll be watching it closely. Thanks for your help in following it.

CARREAU: Yeah. Thanks. Good to talk to you.

FLATOW: You too. Mark Carreau is a contributing writer for Aviation Week. He covered the space program for the last 20 years as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle.

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