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NASA: Space station crew evacuates to duck debris

March 12, 2009 | 10:47 am

Specialist Rick Mastracchio works outside the international space station during an August 2007 mission

The two U.S. astronauts and one cosmonaut who are aboard the international space station had to evacuate briefly today, escaping to a Soyuz capsule to avoid a piece of flying debris, NASA says.

Described as "a spent payload" used to boost space capsules into higher orbit, the debris is believed to be only one of "more than 18,000 pieces of space junk in low-Earth orbit the size of a baseball and larger" that are flying around in outer space, reports Space Flight Now, a specialty website.

Apparently, the Air Force tracks debris in outer space (who knew?) and notifies various agencies on a priority list -- NASA first, to protect manned spacecraft, followed by high-priority military and civilian planes. In this case, the space agency says, the astronauts and cosmonaut were returned to the $100-billion Space Station as soon as the debris passed without a hit. By our account, they were in the Soyuz lifeboat for about 10 minutes, from 12:35 p.m. to 12:45 p.m. EDT.

The near-miss-in-space aboard the International Space Station came one day after President Obama told the our sister paper, the Orlando Sentinel,  that NASA was an agency afflicted by "a sense of drift" and that it needed a "mission that is appropriate for the 21st century."

During an interview, Obama said the first priority of a new agency administrator -- whom he promised to appoint soon -- would be "to think through what NASA's core mission is and what the next great adventures and discoveries are under the NASA banner."

Meanwhile, back in space, or maybe we should say back on Earth, NASA technicians were still working on fixing a gas leak that forced them to postpone a Discovery launch until at least Sunday.

-- Johanna Neuman

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Photo credit: NASA/Getty Images of specialist Rick Mastracchio working outside the international space station during an August 2007 mission.