June 28, 2011

A Chilling Reminder of Why Cancelling the Shuttles Endangers ISS

This morning, a piece of space junk or a meteoroid came within just 850 feet of the International Space Station, and to protect the crew they sheltered in Soyuz capsules in case of damage.

Space is never safe or predictable, and today's event underscores the risks created should there be damage or a failure of a large component for which there is no replacement. An example might be one or more solar or cooling panels being damaged by space junk. Indeed just a year ago, a large cooling pump failed, and while there were replacements, what if those are used up over the next few years? They are too large to fit in existing or planned cargo freighters, and the logistics of such a launch and rendezvous might take far too long to save ISS.

In response to my question to NASA and Congressional experts to the question "What contingency plans exist for launching large and critical replacement items;" the answers I have gotten are that there are no known plans. If any such plans were ever made and just filed away so key people today don't know of them, it is time to recover them so immediate action can be taken if ever needed. Further, having plans but no will to actually use them in spite of the cost and complexity to save ISS in a timely manner would be as bad as having no plans. Immediate action would be needed to fit the item in a payload fairing and with precision rendezvous with ISS so it can be captured by a robotic arm.

Minor ISS Solar Panel Damage in 2007
Impact Damage to Endeavour in 2007
At the minimum, Atlantis and Endeavour should have been preserved and kept on "launch on need" basis, and the ideal solution would have been to accept United Space Alliance's offer to continue to operate them for less than current costs. Maintaining such an "insurance policy" would cost just a few billion a year, yet it would protect our estimated $100 billion investment in ISS.

Congress must demand NASA create--and be ready to implement--contingency plans for launching critical replacements to assure ISS need not risk being lost entirely or having modules closed and crew reduced in the event of an emergency for which a single shuttle launch could have saved the day.

Photo credits: NASA

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