NASA and the nations involved in the International Space Station project will run out of emergency rescue craft within 18 months and have not decided what to do after April 2006, when the final Russian Soyuz spacecraft leaves the station and returns to Earth.
Soyuz, the three-person lifeboat for the crews if a fire, serious illness or other disaster occurs, soon ends its production run under the current international agreement, and a cash-strapped Russia wants compensation for building more of the spacecraft after 2006.
But warning against payment to Moscow are U.S. anti-proliferation laws and the initial spirit of the interagency project — under which NASA, Roskosmos and the space agencies of the 14 other nations involved divide up the tasks and no money changes hands.
The 1998 interagency agreement called for Russia to supply 11 Soyuz, each to serve for six months, starting with the first crew launch on Oct. 31, 2000. The 11th Soyuz expires in April 2006.
“We’re planning to have both purchasing and barter agreements that will cover 2006 to 2010,” said Alexei Krasnov, head of Roskosmos’ manned-mission programs.
NASA Deputy Administrator Fred Gregory said that “the United States and Russia have been negotiating” the Soyuz issue and other matters.
But the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 prohibits NASA from purchasing anything from Russia unless the U.S. president certifies that Russia is not sending nuclear technology to Iran.
NASA’s own planned lifeboats got bogged down in cost overruns and were canceled. The proposed new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) won’t be operational until 2010 at the earliest.
Politics and negotiating strategies are also part of the discussion, with former U.S. astronaut Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin arguing that NASA should approach China, either for the vehicles themselves or to prevent Moscow from driving a hard bargain.
“We should encourage the complementary use of Shenzhou to complement the Soyuz so the Soyuz price per lifeboat does not become exorbitant,” the Apollo 11 astronaut said.
There are several other choices:
Mothball the space station until NASA’s CEV becomes available. Construction and maintenance tasks would continue on visiting shuttle flights, but crews would not live onboard again for at least four years. If a technical problem arises, no crew would be there to make repairs. Last year, the crew fixed a small leak in the U.S. laboratory that would have drained all the air from that module.
Get permission from Congress to purchase the eight Soyuz spacecraft needed for 2006 to 2010. Nothing indicates that Congress would comply, especially after recent NASA cutbacks and funding difficulties.
Leave crews onboard without any lifeboat. Crews would fly to the space station on the shuttle and remain onboard until the next shuttle arrives to take them home. But it is doubtful that managers would risk the bad publicity of leaving astronauts in space without any means of getting home.
Fund a crash program for a quick-and-dirty lifeboat designed only to save the lives of the crew. In 1987, NASA examined removing an unflown 1960s Apollo spacecraft from a museum and refurbishing it as a lifeboat. Commercial companies have proposed lifeboats that might be ready by the 2006 deadline if they get an immediate go-ahead. In this scenario, the lifeboat would be launched inside the space shuttle and attached to the space station.