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NASA considered vacating the space station before, 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 three years because of the significant cutback in supplies.

The space station’s population doubled in 2009, to six. It wasn’t until the space station was completed this year that science research finally took priority.

Even if the space shuttles still were flying, 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. Complicating matters is the need to land the capsules during daylight hours in Kazakhstan, resulting in weeks of blackout periods.

NASA wants American private companies to take over crew hauls, but that’s three to five years away at best. Until then, Soyuz capsules are the only means of transporting astronauts to the space station.

Japan and Europe have their own cargo ships and rockets, for unmanned use only. Commercial front-runner Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, plans to launch a space station supply ship from Cape Canaveral at the end of November. That would be put on hold if no one is on board to receive the vessel.

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.”

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Online:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html