But if there is no one at the ISS in late November, there will be no one to grab and berth the Dragon, or open the hatch to it after docking, so the mission would have to be postponed until such a time as the station is occupied again.
All of this is a symptom of a deeper problem with our space policy — it is an indication that space, and opening up that frontier, isn’t really important. That is the only way to explain NASA’s extreme risk aversion, which I’ve discussed in the past:
If our attitude toward the space frontier is that we must strive to never, ever lose anyone, it will remain closed. If our ancestors who opened the west, or who came from Europe, had such an attitude, we would still be over there, and there would have been no California space industry to get us to the moon forty years ago. It has never been “safe” to open a frontier, and this frontier is the harshest one that we’ve ever faced. But, fortunately, we have sufficiently advanced technology to allow us to do it anyway, and probably with much less loss of life than any previous one. But people die every day doing a lot less worthwhile things than opening a frontier. I think that part of the angst of the nation over the loss of the Columbia astronauts was because they seemed to be dying in such a trivial pursuit–performing science experiments in low Earth orbit for children, rather than expanding our nation’s reach to the solar system.
We don’t really have to abandon the ISS — NASA has several options. The safest solution would be to simply load up a fresh crew module with payload, and deliver it to replace the one that is going stale, extending the stay of current crew. Or, while it wouldn’t be prudent, if they don’t discover what the problem was on time, we could hope that what happened last month was just an anomaly, and go ahead with the next Soyuz as planned. Or the astronauts could take the risk of a winter landing.
Or (and this would be the gutsiest, but highest payoff thing to do), we could throw together a rudimentary life-support system for the Dragon, put in some couches, and send crew up on it in December. After all, Elon Musk said last year after its maiden flight that if someone had been in it, they would have had a nice ride. In so doing, they would have eliminated the need for the Russians, and immediately have a lifeboat capable of carrying seven people with a designed orbital lifetime of a year, allowing them to immediately increase crew size and perhaps increase the productivity of the facility. And when the launch abort system is completed in a couple years, the safety would be improved, but its absence wouldn’t have prevented us from continuing to boldly open the frontier.
That NASA doesn’t seem to be considering any of these things, and is instead contemplating abandoning our only orbital outpost on which we’ve spent tens of billions over decades, even if only temporarily, speaks eloquently about our national perceptions of its importance, and trivializes it. It would say that unlike commercial fishing, coal mining, construction, and liberating peoples, opening up frontiers, even the harshest one, isn’t worth the risk of a human life. But I’ll bet that there are plenty of people in the astronaut office who’d be willing to take that risk, and in the unlikely event that there aren’t, there are plenty of people fully qualified who are. It’s what our ancestors would have done and how they created this great nation that once put men on the moon. What has happened to us?