All astronauts will be pulled off the International Space Station by mid-November if scientists and engineers can’t quickly determine the cause of last week’s supply ship crash, officials announced on Monday.
On Aug. 24, an unmanned Russian cargo ship carrying three tons of supplies to the space station crashed in Siberia, the New York Times reports. The rocket that lifted the space vehicle is a Soyuz rocket similar to the rocket that carries astronauts to the space station. Since NASA has retired the Space Shuttle, it is presently the only way for people to travel to the space station.
Currently, six astronauts are living on the $100 billion orbiting laboratory: three Russians, two Americans and one Japanese.
According to the Los Angeles Times:
Officials said the six-man crew on the station now is not endangered, having sufficient supplies from the last shuttle delivery of Atlantis in July to make it to the next supply mission with a European rocket in early 2012.
Two Soyuz spacecraft are docked at the station, enabling the international crew to return to Earth as their permissible limits in the weightlessness of space are reached.
However, before the Russian space agency sends up replacement astronauts, its officials have said they want to hear the findings of the Russian commission investigating the crash and then conduct one or two unmanned launches of the Soyuz to test the rocket. The Russian government panel looking into the accident is expected to release at least preliminary results next week. According to the Wall Street Journal:
Astronauts (will) temporarily abandon the station if Russian Soyuz rockets aren't cleared to resume flight before the last of the current residents are slated to leave, at the latest by mid-November. The replacement timetable is partly determined by the portions of the year when astronauts can land safely.
“We’re going to do what’s the safest for the crew and for the space station, which is a very big investment of our governments,” Michael T. Suffredini, manager of the space station program for NASA, said during a news conference on Monday. “Our job is, as stewards of the government, to protect that investment, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
The space station, which has been continuously staffed by astronauts for more than a decade, can be operated by controllers on earth indefinitely. However, Suffredini said, it is risky to leave the space station in the hands of machines. "There is a greater risk of losing" the station, due to some unexpected malfunction or onboard problem, he said, when there aren't any astronauts able to troubleshoot, the Wall Street Journal reports. "The risk increase isn't insignificant,” he said.