The International Space Station, or ISS, is something we take for granted. It’s been rotating the earth, providing a platform for experiments and data collection in orbit for almost twenty years.
The ISS gives scientists and astronauts from around the world a chance to run experiments in microgravity, and study biology, physics, astronomy, and meteorology.
The ISS is a dream come true- but could it be in danger of being abandoned?
A Bit of History
Originally, the ISS was built and serviced using Russian Soyuz vehicles, and the U.S. Space Shuttle fleet. In 1998, the first module of the station was launched into orbit by the Russians, and the second arrived in space via the shuttle Endeavour.
Once the station was completed in the year 2000, the first crew arrived on a Soyuz TM-31. The ISS was then serviced, and crew delivered and returned for more than ten years using a combination of Russian rockets and the NASA Space Shuttle fleet.
The United States ended the Space Shuttle program in 2011, after a series of failures, amid fear that the aging fleet would continue to be dangerous as transport vehicles.
In October of 2018, two astronauts: Nick Hauge of the United States, and Alexey Ovchinin of Russia, were loaded up on a Soyuz rocket, ready to go relieve astronauts who were currently on the ISS. Unfortunately, however, the rocket mysteriously malfunctioned two minutes into the flight.
The launch was aborted mid-flight, and happily, both astronauts made it safely back to earth with no injuries.
So What’s the Problem?
Well, no one wanted to launch another Soyuz until they figured out what went wrong with this last launch, and fears began mounting that the Soyuz wasn’t as reliable as they used to be. The Soyuz fleet, which has been a workhorse the whole world can count on, is aging just like the Space Shuttles, and experts fear that the latest malfunction is a sign that the rockets are no longer reliable.
Without them, and with the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, we would have no way to get astronauts up to the ISS.
The way the system has worked in the past is that the new Soyuz with the relief astronauts stays at the station as a lifeboat in case of catastrophic failure of the station.
The Soyuz can only stay so long in orbit, however, before they start to degrade. That means that each lifeboat has a shelf life. It can only stay in orbit for a maximum of 200 days (about six and a half months), which would give the current astronauts until January to come down safely.
What Happens Next?
The ISS will remain manned until the last minute, but if the investigations into the Soyuz malfunction do not find a cause, the astronauts will have to come down in the remaining lifeboat, which would leave the International Space Station unmanned for the first time in two decades.
The investigation is ongoing, and there is a launch tentatively scheduled for December 3rd, as Russian officials hope that the cause of the last malfunction will be resolved by then.
Early data shows that there was an abnormal separation of one of the Soyuz’s four strap-on boosters. The booster did not separate properly, and it hit one of the rocket’s core stages. The planned December launch, with three astronauts aboard, would solve the problem of the timer ticking on the lifeboat in space- if it’s successful.
So Is the Problem Solved?
We’ll have to wait and see how the planned December launch goes, and if the Soyuz fleet can overcome this hiccup- and continue to be a reliable vehicle for getting astronauts and equipment to and from the International Space Station.
The recent mishap is a reminder of not only how close we can come to having the station unmanned, but also of the need for NASA to develop and deploy a working system of the U.S.’s own, both for backup, and to provide an alternative method.
The United States currently pays more than eighty million dollars per seat for each U.S. astronaut, a price that increased sharply after the U.S. grounded the Shuttle Fleet. This means that to date, NASA and the United States have paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.37 billion dollars to the Russians, for them to take U.S. astronauts up to the space station.
It remains to be seen whether the United States government will be willing to commit the resources necessary to develop and build the planned Constellation Orion from Lockheed Martin.