Suffredini Says ISS Could Be Destaffed In November

Suffredini Says ISS Could Be Destaffed In November

The International Space Station (ISS) management team is preparing contingency plans in the wake of the failure of Russia’s Progress M-12M spacecraft to reach orbit last week. Under one set of assumptions, it might be necessary to operate the ISS without a crew beginning in November.

The Progress M12-M cargo-carrying spacecraft was aboard a Soyuz rocket that is very similar to the type used to launch Russia’s crew-carrying Soyuz spacecraft. Thus, the Soyuz rocket failure affects launches of both crews on Soyuz spacecraft and cargo on Progress spacecraft.

NASA’s ISS program manager, Mike Suffredini, said at a press conference today that the return of three of the current ISS crew members probably will be delayed for a week, to mid-September, because the launch of the next Soyuz spacecraft with their replacements is delayed indefinitely. Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reported that Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, said it would be September 16. The next Soyuz crew launch had been scheduled for September 21 CDT (September 22 at the launch site).

Russia continues to investigate what caused the third stage of the Soyuz U rocket to fail during ascent. Progress M-12M (called “Progress 44” by NASA because it is the 44th to go to the ISS), filled with cargo for the ISS, crashed into a remote area of Siberia. Russia continues to search for remains of the spacecraft, but bad weather and difficult terrain have slowed those efforts. Russia announced today that they would increase the number of aircraft involved in the search, but they expect that the spacecraft broke into many pieces.

Until more is known about the failure, the Russians cannot set a date for launching the next ISS crew. However, Itar-Tass said that preparations are continuing for the possible launch of the next Progress spacecraft – Progress M-13M – in October.

With the termination of the U.S. space shuttle, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is the only way to get crews to and from the ISS. Suffredini stressed that the six crew members aboard the ISS are in no danger. The Soyuz spacecraft that are needed to bring them back to Earth are already attached to the ISS, and the ISS was thoroughly stocked with supplies by the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, last month.

However, the Soyuz spacecraft that are attached to the ISS have a limited on-orbit lifetime, approximately 200-210 days. For safety reasons, there can only be as many crew aboard ISS as can be returned to Earth in an emergency. Each Soyuz spacecraft has three seats, and with two docked at the ISS, that allows six crew members to be aboard.

With the roughly 6-month orbital lifetime of a Soyuz spacecraft, crews therefore rotate on a 6-month schedule, and the lifetimes of the two Soyuz that are attached are ending.

Other considerations are ensuring that landings can take place in daylight, which is dictated by orbital dynamics, and to not plan landings during the winter when weather conditions in the landing area are problematical at best. With all of those considerations, the ISS management team is currently planning to return three of the crew in mid-September and the other three in mid-November.

Thus, how many crew – if any – will be aboard the ISS after that is dependent on when Russia can certify that the Soyuz rocket is ready to launch a crew. Suffredini said that if the Soyuz is not flying by mid-November, the ISS would have to be destaffed. NASA has continually warned about problems that could develop if the ISS is left in an unoccupied condition for a lengthy period. Suffredini reiterated that today.

These contingency plans could also impact the scheduled test flight of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. NASA and SpaceX are considering combining SpaceX’s next two test flights such that the next Falcon 9/Dragon mission would involve berthing Dragon to the ISS. However, a crew needs to be aboard ISS to conduct the berthing operation using the Remote Manipulator System. Without a crew, that operation could not take place. November 30 is the currently planned date for the SpaceX launch.

The key is what went wrong with the Soyuz rocket last week. Until Russia makes that determination and fixes it, the fate of ISS operations will be in limbo.

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