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space shuttle



Jim Oberg
Dec 4, 2002

One week after NASA officials completed an initial study of how to evacuate the International Space Station and leave it without a permanent astronaut crew for up to a year, Russian space officials informed them that it probably would not be necessary after all. Instead, NASA was asked to assume responsibility for some of the logistics missions in 2003 that Russia had originally agreed to.

The potential interruption of permanent occupancy of the space outpost was thought to be a consequence of Russia’s failure to finance the regular visits of manned Soyuz and unmanned Progress supply vehicles. Originally, two manned Soyuz and four unmanned Progress flights had been planned for 2003. But when the Russians informed NASA in early October that as few as two missions in total might be possible, and that the newly arrived Expedition-6 crew would probably have to return to Earth in June 2003 aboard the Soyuz TMA-1 now attached to ISS, NASA space station officials commissioned the four week special study.

Then, on November 29, a Russian official informed his NASA counterpart in Houston that in fact there would be enough Russian launches in 2003 to maintain a crew aboard ISS. Two Soyuzes would be launched in April and October, and as many as three Progress vehicles.

This is a reduction from the previously promised four launchings, officially designated 10P, 11P, 12P, and 13P. The launch dates for the first two Progresses remain unchanged, the Russians said, but the third has slipped from July 30 to November 30, and the fourth has slipped into 2004.

“As a result of this action,” the message continued, “the ability of the Russian side to deliver cargoes supporting ISS flight on Progress vehicles is reduced.”

In a follow-up memo on December 2, Rocket and Space Corporation Deputy director Valeriy Ryumin specified the help that Russia was requesting from NASA: “We would ask you, in addition to the containers containing food and crew support items already planned for delivery on Shuttles, if you could look into the possibility of the Shuttles delivering the crew support equipment that was previously scheduled to be delivered on Progress vehicle[s].” The total mass of the material to be transferred would be 235 kg, Ryumin wrote.

Observers have speculated that the entire ‘ISS evacuation’ drill is a budget ploy by the Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos, to obtain additional funding either from the Russian federal budget or from the ISS international partners. Speaking at a press conference the day before the most recent Soyuz launch to the ISS, Rosaviakosmos director Yury Koptev complained that due to a 12 to 15 percent drop in his funding, “We haven’t got enough money for the six launches next year.”

He specifically criticized on-going expenditures without any progress toward a larger crew. “We see no point in endlessly following the regime of work when there are three people working on the station,” he stated. “We are categorically against the situation continuing when only three people will be able to work the station.”

In order to free up funding to fabricate and install equipment allowing a crew size increase, Koptev laid out some options. “Perhaps we should even change the regime of the operation of the station, and change it in favor of visits" ”other than permanent occupancy. A second option that he mentioned was “limiting the number of Russian launches”.

Space officials at the Johnson Space Center told ‘Space News’ that the “demanning” exercise had still been a useful activity. First, they said, it provided a reference for use in any future contingency that required rapid planning for evacuating the ISS crew for any reason. Secondly, it underscored how dependent NASA remained on Russian vehicles for crew evacuation and for logistic support, a theme that influences current NASA HQ planning for the future ‘Orbital Space Plane’ capabilities.

Internal documents obtained by Space News describe the ‘top level assessment’ of ‘ISS demanning’ delivered to officials at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on November 22.

Even without a permanent crew, assembly flights would have continued at intervals of several months, with space shuttles docking for 10 to 12 days. But more work would be added to each of these missions, and a veteran ISS crewmember – probably Russian – would have needed to be added to each of these flights.

More than 80% of the science activities currently under way on the ISS would have had to be canceled during this period, and the documents admitted “there are limited mitigation possibilities.” Some research could continue via remote control from the Payload Operations Control Center at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Alabama.

According to a presentation by a Russian official, fabrication of the next-in-line Soyuz TMA vehicle, scheduled for launch April 28, was already far behind schedule. Although it normally would now be undergoing ‘integrated testing’ of all its installed components, Mikhail Shutikov told NASA on November 22 that it “is missing approximately one third of its components” and is still in the assembly hall at the Moscow factory. Contractors had not been delivering components because they hadn’t been paid for deliveries already used for previous missions. Mission 10P, the Progress-258 robot freighter now under construction, was reportedly in a similar state and is “currently lacking twenty subcontractor components required for module assembly”.

The more recent memos from Moscow did not explain how the status of these two vehicles had been improved. But Russian officials assured NASA that both would now be ready in time for launching.

Because of the possible need for the ISS crew to land in a Soyuz and for the next crew to launch in a Soyuz, consideration was being given to reversing the sequence of the next two long-term crews. A normal crew replacement is planned for a shuttle mission in March 2003. This change would have placed more experienced Russian cosmonauts on board the Soyuz later slated to ‘re-man’ the ISS sometime in 2004.

“Significant risk increase” was expected based on the loss of the ability for a permanent crew to make an urgent repair spacewalk, as might have become necessary under the normal rate of equipment breakdown. Nevertheless, the study concluded that continued assembly during the demanned operations mode “is physically executable”.

What would not have been not executable, however, was most of the scientific work that the station was being built to perform. “Entire disciplines, many of which are high priority research activities, will not be feasible,” the briefing charts stated. “It is clear that in an unmanned mode, expectations from the ISS research program will have to be significantly revised downward.”


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