NASA officials are hopeful Russia will return the venerable Soyuz booster to service in time to avert such a circumstance, which would put the space station at increased risk in the event of serious equipment malfunctions.
Engineers are analyzing what's needed to keep the station alive in case astronauts have to pull out of the international laboratory, according to Michael Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager.
"There is a greater risk of losing ISS if it were unmanned than if it were manned," Suffredini said Monday. "The risk increase is not insignificant."
Russia has tentative plans to return the Soyuz to flight in October with a pair of unmanned missions, eventually leading to the launch of the next space station crew by November. But Russia still must complete its investigation into last week's loss and implement corrective actions.
Just in case the Soyuz rocket is still grounded in November, the space station's international partners assigned engineers to review procedures for abandoning the complex in orbit for up to several months.
The actions would ensure control teams on Earth would be able to monitor space station systems and respond to as many potential problems as possible.
Suffredini described some of the measures a departing crew would perform before leaving the space station unmanned. Astronauts would connect jumper cables to ensure the station has backup cooling, configure the spacecraft's heating system, and close hatches between the station's modules before boarding their Soyuz return capsules.
The crew would isolate the modules in case one of them lost pressure integrity, ensuring other portions of the complex were still habitable, according to Suffredini.
Locks on the station's docking ports would also be disabled to allow robotic Progress cargo craft to automatically come and go with supplies.
"As long as the systems keep operating, we can command the vehicle from the ground and keep it operating and remain in orbit indefinitely," Suffredini said.
But there are cases where multiple failures could limit the ability of ground teams to save the space station. The million-pound complex is at less risk with residents on-board, according to NASA.
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