Adam Fast - NASA Report: Uncertain Space Times - Airplanista Aviation Magazine Monthly Column - Uncertain Space Times

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This aviation magazine article was originally published in the October, 2011 issue of Airplanista Magazine. You can view the original story in our digital aviation magazine here.

By Adam Fast

The worst fears of space geeks seem to be coming to fruition less than three months since final wheel stop on Shuttle.

The August 24 launch of a Progress resupply mission ended in failure as the third stage engine shut down after a malfunction and was unable to get the capsule into orbit - it came down elsewhere in Russia. As we’ve discussed previously, the Progress is an unmanned Soyuz - so this failure halts all launches of our only way to orbit until questions are answered.

Cargo-wise, the International Space Station is fine - particularly after STS-135 took up all it could to give better supply margins. But with the next crew launch uncertain, a limit on how long already-launched capsules can stay aloft, and a restriction against landing Soyuz in the dark there is a possibility that ISS could be de-crewed for some amount of time while this is figured out.

The current goal is to launch a new crew November 14 - the failure is believed to be isolated and prevented against, but the next month will be stressful as we see if something else pops up. In the meantime, controllers on the ground are preparing procedures in case ISS must be left empty.

So here we are in a situation where the science ongoing on ISS may need to be stopped – because without humans to tend to experiments and make observations, they cannot continue – and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. I don’t know for a fact that there are experiments that have been going since it initially became capable 10 years ago but if they have been, the data stops. We also lose our “badge” of having an American in space continually since November 2, 2000.

Fortunately the Space Station itself is safe. The crew members living there have few responsibilities unless on-site hands are required. Without somebody to generate carbon dioxide and dust, filter replacements, cleaning, and other things will not be a factor. Redundancies make it unlikely a systems failure will cripple ISS before crews arrive to perform the fixes necessary. Mission Control will continue watching systems, re-boosting into orbit, and running the systems as they always have. It will remain in orbit until we can re-crew it.

Shortly after the Soyuz incident, NASA announced our “future” space vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS). With it, we will return to the era of capsules for crew with “Orion” that was being developed for the now-cancelled Constellation rocket. SLS reuses SSMEs (space shuttle main engines) and SRBs (solid rocket boosters); we’ll talk about it in more depth later but it does nothing to alleviate the current situation.

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