Backup plan for the International Space Station

July 31, 2011 By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

The space shuttle flew to the International Space Station 37 times, but its retirement leaves NASA reliant on the Russian Soyuz for future trips, raising the question of what would happen if the Soyuz is grounded for an accident or another problem.

As it turns out, NASA does not have a formal contingency plan, said Michael Suffredini, NASA's program manager for the space station. But without hesitation, he rattled off a list of steps the agency could take.

"We would keep the crew on orbit for some months and likely extend that if we thought that was viable," Suffredini said. Crews normally stay six months.

If necessary, the could leave via the two docked Soyuz capsules, which can each carry three .

The station can be operated by ground controllers, so long as critical parts - such as guidance gyroscopes - don't require human hands for repairs. It carries 6 metric tons of fuel, enough to keep it boosted to the proper orbit for 360 days. Russian progress cargo ships can replenish the fuel supply robotically.

An analysis after the Columbia shuttle accident showed that if the space station were unoccupied for more than six months, the chance of it leaving orbit and crashing into the atmosphere would increase tenfold, although that risk is still minimal, Suffredini said. "Most of our critical systems have redundancy," he said.

Even that low risk is something to think about, given the station's importance and cost. The space station represents one of the most complex and ambitious construction projects in , requiring new technologies in materials, tools and spacesuits, as well as the development of new human skills for working in space. It is regarded as the most expensive machine ever built, with the U.S. cost alone about $65 billion. Combined with the other partners' shares, the program's life-cycle cost is more than $100 billion.

The station was completed only this year and is finally ready to allow NASA, along with its international partners, to conduct full-scale research. Initially, 36 hours per week of research will be done on the American side of the station, while the Russians will control their own programs in their labs.

NASA has an ambitious agenda in astrophysics, biology and medicine, said agency spokesman Kelly O. Humphries. Clinical trials are about to start on a vaccine pioneered at the station for a type of salmonella, he added.

Others say any verdict on the quality of that science is not yet in. "We are just getting into the science program, and the outcome of that is yet to be determined," said Charles Vick, a senior analyst at, a Washington think tank.

If the station were to fall into harm's way while unmanned and had to be "deorbited," NASA would aim it at an empty spot in the ocean. Such a decision would rest with the Space Station Control Board, an international panel that runs the program and is chaired by Suffredini.

"Given the significance of this decision, we would ultimately make a recommendation to our agency leadership, who would ... approve any plan to deorbit the ISS," he said.

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5 / 5 (9) Jul 31, 2011
Short of the entire country of Russia collapsing, I don't think the Soyuz will stop flying. It's been flying accident free for almost half a century - last accident was 40 years ago.
5 / 5 (5) Jul 31, 2011
SpaceX Dragon capsules will also be available for servicing ISS eventually, the first is scheduled to dock with the station just this fall.


I dont think we should worry about losing access to the ISS in the future.
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 31, 2011
I think someone should have thought about that some time ago, but he was probably worried with starting another war. All the war money could have been infused into research and development... USA would have been ahead of the first-world countries. Why not do a war on R&D? It would make sense on a long term, it would leave China behind into some modern Middle Ages and send America and at least part of the human race far from some of its current problems.
5 / 5 (5) Aug 01, 2011
Sergei Korolev was the man. Soyuz is STILL going! Simply amazing.
4 / 5 (2) Aug 01, 2011
SpaceX Dragon capsules will also be available for servicing ISS eventually, the first is scheduled to dock with the station just this fall.


I dont think we should worry about losing access to the ISS in the future.

We live in exciting times! I hope Bigelow is able to get their inflatable space station up and running soon. Private spaceflight is the way to go. It's ironic to think that of all possible things, the Russian space agency would be the first to commercialize space travel. But what's even more amazing is how fast private startups have been able to develop their own spacecraft. Only in a matter of a decade.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 01, 2011
I don't know... a lot of these start-ups do a little bit go public or seek investor money get it and then poof, gone!
1 / 5 (4) Aug 01, 2011
If it is not already too late; for civilization even to continue: All countries should stay out of space; untill their national debits have been eliminated. Throwing man's junk into space is a foolishness the working public can not afford to support by taxation of their income, or property.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 01, 2011
yup, the Soyuz may be cramped, but it is reliable. And it is the Russian space program
5 / 5 (1) Aug 01, 2011
Best back-up ever plan.... Use Dr Chang-Diaz's VASIMR rocket that is planned to be tested soon on the ISS. Be just jim dandy for station keeping. Also another suggestion is the British discovery, a propellantless photonic device invented by a fellow named Shawcross that uses light...photons...for space propulsion. Light pressure is known and its effects have been demonstrated, and the device works, as it relies on Einsteinian principles of relativity to do so.... hence if it did not work, neither would the old shaggy one's theory. Another idea, store the shuttle, at least one of them, in space parked next to the ISS and docked with a docking 'tee'. Then it could be used for verious things like deep space satellite retrieval for servicing, lunar orbital visits, or even a lunar orbital station of sorts when fitted with the proper docking equipment. We own it! Fit IT with Chang Diaz's rocket attached to its wings! And a nuke generator for power. BIG enough!
5 / 5 (2) Aug 01, 2011
Like that, use the shuttle as a interorbital transfer vehicle or an exploration vehicle in its own right with VASIMR rockets mounted in pods below its wings. Actually, quite a number of these pods can be used, and mounted both above the wings and below as in space the wings perform no aerodynamics...its never gonna land on earth again! The main engine spaces can be used to house a 200MW nuclear reactor to power the engines. Additionally, seeing as no significant G forces will disallow it, a saucer shaped crew space can be mounted on a pylon to a docking setup on the cargo deck. This would be saucer shaped so that it could rotate to maintain artificial gravity for the crew when not piloting the craft, etc. The thing would look like a miniature Star Trek craft but so what. It would be practical and the changes would be off the shelf ....and cheap! Even a bloodsucking republican can see the benefit of that!

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