Will NASA Abandon Ship?

For over a decade, the International Space Station has never seen a day in which it didn’t have occupants. Many thought when it was first permanently crewed, back in November of 2000, that it was a watershed in history -- the day after which there would never again not be humans living off the planet. That was certainly the plan, because it was assumed that there would be follow-on programs even after the ISS was decommissioned. But it may have been another false start, because NASA is now contemplating at least temporarily giving up our tentative first foothold in the long climb to eventual space settlement.

As a result of the failure of the upper stage of the Russian Roscosmos Progress flight last month, the agency can no longer rely on the Soyuz crew launcher, because it is essentially the same rocket. Until the Russians have determined what caused the problem and how they will fix it, their rockets cannot be trusted. The implications for the ISS are potentially dire. First, there were plans to deliver a new crew on the Soyuz in a few weeks. These will now obviously be delayed.

Also delayed will be the return to earth of three current crew members, which had been planned about the same time as their replacement would be arriving. This isn’t an immediate issue, other than prolonging their stay in space, with whatever health detriments may accrue. The real problem is that they can’t delay it indefinitely, because the Soyuz capsule only has a limited on-orbit life (seven months), after which it cannot be used to return crew home with confidence. The one they planned to bring back will reach its use-by date in late October. So they’ll have to come home then, leaving only three aboard, reducing or eliminating any science that can be performed there until it reaches a full crew complement again.

The remaining three could in theory stay until January, when their Soyuz also starts to get stale, but there are earthly issues to deal with in terms of their schedule. If they wait that long, they will come down in a brutal Kazakh winter, and if they want to get in before that, the last time they can leave and still come down in daylight is in November, so for safety reasons, if the Russians haven’t figure out the problem and gotten a new expedition up by then, they will abandon the station entirely until they can. NASA believes that it can continue to maintain the facility remotely, at least for a while, but it will be a major psychological setback, particularly now that the station has just completed assembly and was about to start finally doing some serious research, including experiments with potential implications for medical cures.

Ironically, it would also be a setback for the most promising near-term means of reducing or eliminating our reliance on the Russians.

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is currently scheduled to launch its Dragon capsule to the ISS in late November, with plans for a test docking with the system in early December (almost exactly a year after its first successful flight). If that mission is successful, it will be cleared to start delivering cargo to the station next year, and it will be a major milestone toward using it as a crew delivery vehicle and lifeboat. To deliver crew, conventional wisdom is that it will need a life-support system and a launch abort system, which are in work, but won’t be ready for two or three years, depending on funding availability. It could serve as a lifeboat (and one capable of returning seven instead of three) with the addition of the life-support system only, and it could be a fairly rudimentary one for the short trip back to earth. With these capabilities, America would have its own answer to Soyuz.

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?