Not abandoning the International Space Station
I read with alarm last week that thanks to a Russian Soyuz failure on the 24th of August, there was a possibility that the current residents of the International Space Station will run out of packed lunches and have to abandon ship.
I decided that I’d give it some time before I started parroting those alarmist headlines.
A wise decision.
Today it was announced that the fault had been traced back to a manufacturing defect.
That was fast result.
The Russian space agency described the flaw as an “accident” caused by a clogged fuel line, and that they recommended tightening quality control. A lot of US news sites also mention that they will solve it by introducing surveillance cameras, though I’ve yet to see this stated in any of the Russian based reports.
This of course raises the question of what exactly it is that happened that they were able to figure out what went wrong in two weeks? And the solution includes tightening monitoring at the plant?
The only thing I could come up with is that a toolset at the Soyuz assembly planet was short a screwdriver which was still inside the patient when it blasted off. When the staff were lined up and management asked the owner to step forward, everyone took a step back.
OK, so I’m guessing.
The actual reason that the astronauts would have to abandon the space station is not a shortage of supplies, it’s that the Soyuz capsules are both a lifeboat and a ride home. These are boosted into orbit by a nearly identical launcher to the one that failed, and the capsules themselves have a limited shelf life. If no more were on the way, then the astronauts would simply have to abandon ship before their ride expired, or they might not be coming back at all. If you consider that the currently docked capsules are set to expire during the harsh Russian winter then waiting till the last minute could put the astronaut’s lives at risk when they land.
The problem is that the world is woefully short of manned launch capability and we desperately need an alternative to Soyuz to provide redundancy. At the moment, the best option is SpaceX and it’s Dragon capsule, but there’s still a tonne of paperwork to get though before it’ll be human rated.