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The International Space Station may have to start operating without a crew in November if Russian engineers don't figure out soon what caused a recent rocket failure, NASA officials announced today (Aug. 29).
The unmanned Russian cargo ship Progress 44 crashed just after its Aug. 24 launch to deliver 2.9 tons of supplies to the orbiting lab. The failure was caused by a problem with the Progress' Soyuz rocket, which is similar to the one Russia uses to launch its crew-carrying vehicle — also called Soyuz — to the station.
Currently, six astronauts reside on the space station. They shouldn't be unduly affected by the Progress crash, NASA officials said, because they have enough supplies to last a while on orbit.
But three of these astronauts are due to return to Earth next month, and the rest are scheduled to come back in mid-November. At the moment, the Soyuz is the only way to get astronauts to and from the station. So if the rocket anomaly isn't identified and fixed soon, a fresh crew won't be able to reach the orbiting lab before the last three spaceflyers head for home. [Photos: Building the International Space Station]
Unmanned for the first time in a decade?
That situation would leave the $100 billion orbiting lab unmanned for the first time since 2001. Still, it wouldn't be a disaster, according to NASA officials.
"We know how to do this," NASA's space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters today. "Assuming the systems keep operating, like I've said, we can command the vehicle from the ground and operate it fine, and remain on orbit indefinitely."
NASA would of course prefer to keep some crew aboard the orbiting lab, Suffredini added. Leaving the station unmanned would cut back significantly on the scientific research being done 240 miles (386 kilometers) above the Earth. In the wake of the space shuttle's retirement last month, NASA has repeatedly stressed the importance of that research, and the scientific potential of the station.
But the timing just might not work out. Two Soyuz spacecraft are currently docked to the station to take its six astronauts home. The vehicles are only rated to spend about 200 days in space, so they'll have to depart soon.