By Marcia Dunn, Associated Press
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Astronauts may need to temporarily abandon the International Space Station this fall if last week's Russian launch accident prevents new crews from flying, a NASA official said Monday.
If Russia's essential Soyuz rockets remain grounded beyond mid-November, there will be no way to launch any more astronauts before the current residents are supposed to leave, said NASA's space station program manager, Mike Suffredini.
A space station supply ship was destroyed last week following liftoff from Kazakhstan. The failed upper stage of the Soyuz rocket is similar to what's used to launch astronauts.
The launch of the very next crew already has been delayed. It had been scheduled for Sept. 22.
To keep the orbiting outpost with a full staff of six for as long as possible, three of the current residents will remain in orbit for at least an extra week. They were supposed to return to Earth on Sept. 8.
Suffredini said flight controllers could keep a deserted space station operating indefinitely, as long as all major systems are working properly.
But that's always the last resort: The risk to the space station goes up if no one's on board to fix potential equipment breakdowns.
"We have plenty of options," Suffredini said. "We'll focus on crew safety as we always do."
Astronauts have been living continuously aboard the space station ever since the first crew was launched in 2000.
NASA considered vacating the space station following the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. Back then, shuttles were still being used to ferry some station residents back and forth. Instead, the station got by with two-man crews for a few years because of the significant cutback in supplies.
Even if the space shuttles still were flying - the program ended last month - space station crews still would need Soyuz-launched capsules to serve as lifeboats, Suffredini said. The capsules are certified for no more than 6 1/2 months in space, thus the need to regularly rotate crews.
As for supplies, the space station is well stocked and could go until next summer, Suffredini said. Space shuttle Atlantis dropped off a year's supply of goods just last month.
For now, operations are normal aboard the 240-mile-high complex, he noted, and the additional week on board for half the crew will mean additional science research.
The Russians have set up an investigation team and until it comes up with a cause for the accident and a repair plan, the launch and landing schedules remain in question. None of the spacecraft debris has been recovered yet; the wreckage fell into a remote, wooded section of Siberia.
Suffredini said he hasn't had time to consider the PR impact of abandoning the space station, especially coming so soon after the end of the 30-year shuttle program.
"Flying safely is much, much more important than anything else I can think about right this instant," he said. "I'm sure we'll have an opportunity to discuss any political implications if we spend a lot of time on the ground. But you know, we'll just have to deal with them because we're going to do what's safest for the crew and for the space station."