CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Astronauts may need to take the unprecedented step of temporarily abandoning the International Space Station if last week's Russian launch accident prevents new crews from flying there this fall.
Until officials figure out what went wrong with Russia's essential Soyuz rockets, there will be no way to launch any more astronauts before the current residents have to leave in mid-November.
The unsettling predicament comes just weeks after NASA's final space shuttle flight.
"We have plenty of options," NASA's space station program manager, Mike Suffredini, assured reporters Monday. "We'll focus on crew safety as we always do."
Abandoning the space station, even for a short period, would be an unpleasant last resort for the world's five space agencies that have spent decades working on the project. Astronauts have been living aboard the space station since 2000, and the goal is to keep it going until 2020.
Mr. Suffredini said flight controllers could keep a deserted space station operating indefinitely, as long as all major systems are working properly. The risk to the station goes up, however, if no one is on board to fix equipment breakdowns.
Six astronauts from three countries presently are living on the orbiting complex. Three are due to leave next month; the other three are supposed to check out in mid-November.
The Sept. 22 launch of the very next crew - the first to fly in this post-shuttle era - already has been delayed indefinitely. Russia's Soyuz spacecraft have been the sole means of getting full-time station residents up and down for two years.
As for supplies, the space station is well stocked and could go until next summer, Mr. Suffredini said. Atlantis dropped off a year's supply of goods just last month on the final space shuttle voyage. The unmanned craft destroyed Wednesday was carrying 3 tons of supplies.
The Soyuz has been extremely reliable over the decades; this was the first failure in 44 Russian supply hauls for the space station. Even with such a good track record, many in and outside NASA were concerned about retiring the space shuttles before a replacement was ready to fly astronauts.
Russian space officials 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. The third stage malfunctioned, and a sudden loss of pressure apparently was noted between the engine and turbopump.
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.