NASA: ISS Might Need to Be Temporarily Abandoned in November

Russia has until late November to determine a fix for the problem that caused a Soyuz rocket and Progress freighter to crash last week or the crew will have to temporarily abandon the International Space Station, a NASA official has told Spaceflight Now. The problem, ironically, involves not station operations but rather harsh winter weather at the Soyuz landing site in Kazakhstan.

Although ISS is stocked with supplies well into 2012 in large part due to the space shuttle Atlantis mission last month, the shuttle’s retirement left the station entirely dependent upon Soyuz rockets for crew rotation. Russia uses almost identical Soyuz systems for launch crews and cargo, meaning that no crews will launch until last week’s failure is completely understood.

Soyuz spacecraft need to be replaced every six months or so for safety reasons. Here was the crew rotation schedule before the Progress failure:

  • September 8: Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev and Ronald Garan return to Earth. NASA officials have said this crew could stay aloft until late October if necessary.
  • September 22: Anton Shkaplerov, Anatoly Ivanishin and Daniel Burbank launch to ISS.
  • November 16: Michael Fossum, Sergei Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa return to Earth.

The last crew could stay up until late December or early January. However, Michael Suffredini, NASA’s space station program manager, told Spaceflight Now that weather is a constraint in bringing them home.

“One of our requirements is to land in daylight, and it has to be an hour from sunset or sunrise,” Suffredini said. “On Nov. 19, we reach that cutoff and we go dark.”

The next daylight landing window opens in late December, but NASA and Russian officials worry about extreme winter weather conditions in the Soyuz landing zone on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

“The weather is severe out there in the winter time,” Suffredini said. “So from a search and rescue standpoint, that’s probably something we don’t want to do. Even if it’s within our requirements, we probably don’t want to be landing two hours before sunset. If we had any problem at all, we would be searching for the crew in a blowing snow storm in the middle of night.”

One good piece of news: the Russians received good telemetry from the rocket, whose third stage failed five minutes into the flight.

“They have data showing that the engine was shut down due to what looks like low pressure on the fuel side. They saw data all the way down to when the vehicle broke up,” Suffredini said. “In this case, they at least know where the potential anomaly area is, so they can focus their attention there.”

The schedule for future launches will depend upon the results of the investigation. RIA Novosti reports that a preliminary plan is already being discussed by Russian officials.

Russia will carry out two unmanned test launches of Soyuz carrier rockets in the coming fall before using them to deliver crews to the International Space Station, a source in the Russian space industry said on Friday.

One of the Soyuz rockets will be used to deliver a new Progress M-13M space freighter to the ISS, the source said.

The rare loss of the normally reliable Soyuz rocket has sent shock waves through the Russian space sector, which suffered four launch failures in less than nine months. RIA Novosti reports that efforts are underway to reverse this trend:

The Russian space agency Roscosmos says it will set up a commission for quality control in the space industry after the loss of the Progress spacecraft….Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered to review and improve control procedures in space industry, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday.

“One of our first steps would be to tighten quality control at plants and organizations of the aerospace industry, including setting up a special unit in the [space] agency for this purpose, which is similar to those already operating within the Defense Ministry,” Roscosmos head Vladimir Popovkin said.

A permanent control group will carry out quality control at all stages of the production cycle at enterprises involved in Russia’s space program, Roscosmos said in a statement on its website. Another special working group will be charged with supervising Russia’s manned spaceflight programs.

I’m guessing that the Russians will be able to determine whatever went wrong and fix it fairly quickly. The station might have to go down to a 3-member crew temporarily, but I doubt it will come down to having to temporarily abandon the facility. That’s really a worse-case scenario should Russia continue to lose rockets in the coming months.