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International Space Station to stay manned after all?

August 30, 2011 |  5:28 pm


Russian space officials say they have identified what went wrong with the rocket that failed to reach orbit last week. Now the question is whether the explanation will allay enough fears to keep the International Space Station going.

A spokesperson for the Federal Space Agency (Roscomos) told Russian news agency Itar-Tass that the failure was caused by the rocket's third-stage engine. "It is a malfunction in the engine's gas generator," he said.

Even if you don't know much about rocket science, the announcement’s potential implications are interesting.

Space officials had said Monday that the immediate future of the International Space Station rested on whether the Russians could determine what went wrong with the rocket and then fix it before a November deadline.   

If not, warned NASA’s space station chief -– who also happens to be chairman of the international group that operates the space station -- the station might have to be abandoned. At least temporarily.

The rocket, which blew up over Russia's Altai region last week, was carrying supplies, not people, but a very similar rocket is used to take scientists to and from the space station. Nobody — not NASA and not Roscomos — wants to put an astronaut on what might be a faulty rocket.

"We're focused on keeping the crew safe. Our next focus is on keeping the ISS manned," Mike Suffredini, the aforementioned space station honcho, was quoted as saying in various media reports. "Flying safely is much, much more important than anything else I can think about right this instant."

The International Space Station has been continuously staffed for more than a decade, but NASA officials say it's not necessarily the end of the world (or the space station) if it goes astronaut-less for some time. At Monday’s news conference, Suffredini told reporters that the space station can be flown without a crew.

Still, he stressed that having a crew on board is always preferable, especially because crew members can respond to problems on the space station --  and attempt to fix them -- before any major damage is done.

NASA did not respond to the L.A. Times' request for comment as to whether this new revelation by Roscomos will affect whether the space station remains staffed or not.

It’s always possible that such a quick investigation could be unsettling to NASA, if not Congress.


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 --Deborah Netburn

Image: A NASA handout image shows a close-up view of the unpiloted ISS Progress 41 supply vehicle photographed by an Expedition 27 crew member as it departs from the International Space Station in April. A similar vehicle, also unmanned, crashed back to Earth in Siberia after blasting off toward the station last week. Credit: EPA/NASA.