American and Russian space agency officials are reportedly considering emergency options, including temporarily pulling astronauts out of the orbiting International Space Station (ISS). The situation has arisen in the wake of the crash of an unmanned Russian cargo mission to the ISS last week.
The upper stage of the crashed Soyuz rocket carries a similar module as the manned missions and Russian space officials wish to carry out a thorough scrutiny of their systems before risking sending astronauts on board these rockets.
According to reports, US NASA officials said Monday that no final decisions had been taken and that Russian experts remained "cautiously optimistic" that they would pinpoint the causes of the recent rocket failure in a little more than two months.
Such time frames was within the limits of keeping crews on board and avoid leaving the $100 billion orbiting laboratory operating entirely on automated systems.
In a news conference, Mike Suffredini, manager of the station programme for NASA, said,"I want to emphasize to everyone," that the current crew is safe and "we have plenty of options" about how to keep the station performing safely with a three-person crew "or no crew."
The goal, Suffredini said, is "to protect that investment."
However, if a replacement crew fails to arrive by the middle of November managers effectively would have no choice but to temporarily leave the station without a full-time, live-aboard crew for the first time in more than a decade.
A Soyuz-U rocket carrying an unmanned Progress supply module malfunctioned shortly after launch last week and the ship crashed in Siberia. The third-stage rocket motor that failed last week is the same kind used on the Soyuz rockets that carry manned capsules to the space station.
A Russian government panel probing the accident is expected to release at least preliminary results by late next week, Interfax said.
Roscosmos officials have indicated that they would like to conduct at least one, and perhaps two, unmanned launches of the Soyuz to confirm its reliability before sending up a manned mission.
Suffredini acknowledged that there were great risks involved in leaving the space station unmanned. "There is a greater risk of losing" the station, due to some unexpected malfunction or on board problem, he said, when there aren't any astronauts able to troubleshoot. "The risk increase isn't insignificant."