A Russian Soyuz rocket bound for the International Space Station (ISS) was forced to make an emergency landing with one American and one Russian astronaut on board this morning after a booster engine failure. This leaves NASA administrators with a difficult question: do they keep the people currently aboard the ISS for longer than planned? Or do they keep the ISS empty and uncrewed—an unprecedented move—and force commercial launches to be put on indefinite pause?
There are currently three people aboard the ISS, making up Expedition 56: German astronaut Alexander Gerst, American astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, and Russian astronaut Sergey Prokopyev. These three people launched on June 6 of this year. The Expedition 57 crew that launched this morning, and returned to earth, was supposed to replace Expedition 56 so that the crew can return to earth on December 13.
Kenny Todd, the mission operations integration manager for the ISS, said at a press conference this morning that mid-December is couple of weeks before the Soyuz rocket that brought them to the ISS “expires”—which basically means it becomes unreliable and unsafe for astronauts after experiencing several months of wear and tear in the vacuum of space.
“The Soyuz does indeed have a lifetime,” Todd said. “There’s a little bit of margin on the other side of that, but not a whole lot of margin. As Eric said, probably early January we would start to call it sort of the end of life in that particular Soyuz.”
The same Soyuz rocket system that failed today has to be used to bring the next crew aboard the ISS, since Todd noted that the US doesn’t just have another rocket laying around. NASA administrators currently can’t speak publically to the cause of the engine failure. So the question is, will Russia and the US figure out the cause of today’s problem and launch safely, and replace the current crew by the end of the year?
“If that [launch investigation] is a month, or if that’s two months, or six, I really can’t speculate on the length of it,” Todd said.
Todd added that the ISS equipment is in good shape, and operators on the ground are perfectly capable of keeping the satellite in orbit for an extended period of time. So what’s the big deal about leaving the ISS uncrewed? Todd said that NASA requires astronauts aboard the ISS to monitor and supervise crewed commercial launches that approach the ISS. In essence, NASA needs to be able to ensure their getting their money’s worth when they sign expensive contracts with private companies.
“The fact of the matter is that the International Space Station is a $100 billion international asset for the world,” Todd said. “We definitely, when we start talking about these demonstration flights, having a crew on board, being able to monitor these vehicles as they approach, it’s certainly a very important thing for the overall comfort of both programs, both the [Commercial Crew Program] as well as the ISS program.”
Between now and January, there are four scheduled commercial flight launches listed on the NASA website. After that, the next commercial launch isn’t until March. Theoretically, it wouldn’t be a big deal if the ISS is uncrewed for a period of time. But the ISS is also worth $100 billion, according to Todd. Since there’s precedent for companies breaking the law in space, it makes sense that NASA would want human eyes watching commercial space launches.( Earlier this year, Swarm Technologies—a satellite start-up founded by former Google engineers—illegally launched satellites after their proposal was denied by the FCC.)
However, there have been similar situations in the past. Back in 2011, a Soyuz rocket failure left US and Russian administrators wondering if they could investigate the failure, relaunch safely, and replace the crew on board by mid-November—when the Soyuz for the ISS crew was set to expire. Then-space station programme manager Mike Suffredini said at the time, “If we don’t have Soyuz by the middle of November… then we would have to de-man [the] ISS.”
Looking ahead, it’s worth noting that since 2014, the US has planned to end federal funding to the ISS by 2025. After that, the US plans to rent off space on the ISS to private companies. Also, that Russia's contract to ferry US astronauts to the ISS will end in April of next year. The US has relied on Russian rockets to get Americans to the ISS since the space shuttle program retired in 2011, and the US doesn’t have an equivalent shuttle program in place to pick up the slack.
The ISS is undoubtedly a valuable tool for understanding the crazy universe we live in and where we sit in the midst of it. However, it’s also a way for governments to test how human bodies change in antigravity and toy with the possibility of sponsoring private colonies created by and for the rich. Given all of this, the events of this morning raise an important question: is all of the time, money, labor, and risk to human life worth the nationalistic gunshow, corporate profit, and even military risk that comes with constant launches and keeping the ISS crewed at all times?