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NASA ponders space station evacuation

NASA the International Space Station and Earth as seen from  the last Atlantis flight 7-19-11

Will the International Space Station actually be abandoned this fall after $100 billion and 10 years?

That's one of the questions being pondered by NASA and Russian space experts following last week's failure of an unmanned Russian cargo rocket. The U.S. fleet of space shuttles is retired and the Obama administration has no American alternative coming online for years.Doomed Soyuz Progress Supply Ship launches 8-24-11 from Kazakhstan but failed minutes later

So, dubious Russian rockets are the only means of replacing the crew.

A computer detected an anomaly in the Russian rocket's third stage Wednesday and shut down the engine prematurely after barely five minutes of flight, dooming the orbital attempt. The vehicle and nearly three tons of supplies were incinerated in reentry and the crash in Kazakhstan.

With the U.S. space shuttles decommissioned, Russian rockets remain the only means to reach the space station orbiting at about 220 miles altitude with fresh crew members.

Officials said the six-man crew on the station now is not endangered, having sufficient supplies from the last shuttle delivery of Atlantis in July to make it to the next supply mission with a European rocket in early 2012.

Two Soyuz spacecraft are docked at the station, enabling the international crew to return to Earth as their permissible limits in the weightlessness of space are reached.

However, arrival of new crew members is delayed indefinitely pending a Russian commission's investigation and resolution of last week's engine failure.

The fall's entire space schedule is now under review. And if new launches are delayed past mid-November, the huge orbiting complex could be abandoned for an indeterminate time.

Launch of new crew members in late September is almost certainly delayed as, likely, is the early September scheduled return of some orbiting crew members. If remaining crew reach their maximum stay limits before the rocket mystery is solved and new missions launched, the station could be evacuated, at least temporarily.

The space station, orbiting Earth every 90 minutes at about 17,000 mph, can be operated and maintained remotely by ground controllers. But hands-on scientific experiments would be halted.

RELATED:

Failed Russian rocket jeopardizes space station commute

With Atlantis' last flight, U.S. space shuttle program goes up in smoke

Historic photo of Atlantis returning to Earth -- as seen from outer space

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: The International Space Station and Earth as seen from the last Atlantis flight, July 19. Credit: NASA. Rossiya 24 TV via Associated Press (Doomed Soyuz Progress supply ship launches Aug. 24 from Kazakhstan. The third-stage failed five minutes later).

 
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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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