Could The International Space Station Be Abandoned?

Originally published on August 30, 2011 6:11 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK: I'm Melissa Block, and this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

SIEGEL: Welcome back to the program.

LEROY CHIAO: Oh, great to be back.

SIEGEL: First, there are now six astronauts currently at the Space Station. And NASA says that none are in danger. How and when would they get back to Earth?

CHIAO: Well, that's correct. None are in danger because they have their own spacecraft up there. There are two Soyuz spacecraft docked to the station. And each one can accommodate three crew members - the three that went up and down. And so if there were an emergency, if there were the need, all six crew members could safely come back to Earth.

SIEGEL: Very few of us, of course, can imagine what it's like to be up there in the Space Station, but you were there. And I believe your last mission was 193 days long. If you - did you know what to do in case of emergency? What were the instructions to do if you had to bail out?

CHIAO: And in any case, the procedure is very similar. It's to try to find the problem, isolate it, and work your way backwards towards your rescue vehicle, towards your escape vehicle. So we simulate this many times on the ground, emergency training, to go through and run these procedures.

SIEGEL: Well, first, let's imagine for a second now that it was decided that all six of the people up there should leave. Is that NASA's call, by the way? Is it entirely NASA's call?

CHIAO: Well, NASA's the lead center, but - lead control center, that is, and the lead partner in the International Space Station program. But, of course, Russia's the other major partner. If it came down to it, ultimately it would be NASA's call. But most decisions like that would be pretty clearly, you know, unanimous one way or the other.

SIEGEL: Well, the ISS, the Space Station, is massive. I gather it's about the length and width of a football field. And it's full of stuff. I mean, there are things being done there. If there were no people onboard, what would its effectiveness be to do whatever scientific work it's doing?

CHIAO: And so basically what could happen is you could have - we could lose the entire station. It would eventually - the orbit would decay and it would reenter the Earth's atmosphere and break apart in many large pieces, would survive the reentry and pose a hazard to, you know, to land masses on the ground.

SIEGEL: Was NASA mistaken to bank so entirely on the Soyuz rockets at this stage?

CHIAO: And so I personally - and my colleagues - you know, we know how long it takes to investigate a launch or failure and put a fix in place. And, boy, November is cutting it very close. We may really have to de-crew the station. And in that case we will run a much higher risk of potentially losing the station.

SIEGEL: Dr. Chiao, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

CHIAO: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Leroy Chiao, he's now, among other things, an executive vice president and director of Excalibur Almaz, a private manned spaceflight company. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.