CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 11 (UPI) — The space station astronauts Tuesday volunteered to stay in orbit for a year, or even longer, while NASA sorts through its options in the wake of last week’s loss of space shuttle Columbia and its seven-member crew.
“The extra stay is not something that we consider a negative,” station commander Ken Bowersox said during the crew’s first news conference since the Feb. 1 tragedy. “We like living here … We feel comfortable that we have a way home. We have complete confidence in our Soyuz vehicle and the ability of our Russian partners to operate that vehicle and get us home safely.”
NASA grounded its remaining space shuttles after the Columbia accident. The next mission had been planned for launch on March 1 to deliver a new crew the station. For the immediate future, crew transport will fall to the Russians, which fly Soyuz spacecraft to the outpost twice yearly. A Soyuz remains at the station for six months, the on-orbit lifetime of each ship, to serve as an emergency escape system for the resident crew, while the Soyuz taxi crew typically stays a week then returns to Earth in the station’s old Soyuz.
NASA and its international partners are considering flying a two-person caretaker crew to the station aboard the next Soyuz, now scheduled for launch April 26. Bowersox and his crewmates — NASA astronaut Donald Pettit and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin — would then return home in the Soyuz currently berthed at the outpost.
Cutting the crew to two would save water, the resource most affected by the shuttle flight suspensions. The shuttle delivers about half the station’s water supplies.
Pettit said Tuesday a crew of two would be kept extremely busy just maintaining the outpost, though some limited science experiments could be done.
Staying busy and focused has helped the station crew through their grief over the loss of their friends and colleagues aboard Columbia and the isolation they feel being away during NASA’s most trying time since the 1986 Challenger accident.
Bowersox said his crew learned of the accident during what was expected to be a routine chat with Mission Control in Houston. Johnson Space Center director Jefferson Howell broke the news.
“My first reaction was sheer shock,” Bowersox said. “I was numb and it was hard to believe that what we were experiencing was really happening. And then as the reality wore on, we were able to feel some sadness. It’s the classic grieving responses our psychologists had warned us about: you feel sad, you feel angry, all those things.”
Bowersox added he was confident the cause of the accident would come to light. “Other tragedies have been solved with much less data,” he said.
Said Pettit: “I had always imagined the launch phase to be the dangerous part with the pucker power to it … (The accident) just made these things a little clearer in my mind in terms of where the risks really are.”
The crew listened by radio links to the first memorial service held in Houston, then made their own ceremony in orbit by ringing the ship’s bell seven times. It was a very quiet day, Bowersox recalled.
“The folks on the ground have been real good about reducing our schedule and we’ve had time to grieve our friends,” Bowersox said. “When you’re up here this long, you can’t just bottle up your emotions and focus all the time.”
“It’s time to move forward and we’re doing that slowly,” he added.