While the International House of Pancakes endeavor is chugging along uneventfully, it appears the International Space Station may have to be temporarily abandoned if the Russians can’t get the grounded Soyuz system to return-to-flight by the end of this year. The grounding is actually an opportunity in a thin-disguise for NASA; the ability to get out of/off the ISS and to apply the funding to more useful space projects. The $100 billion ISS could become a bill payer for an overextended NASA, to include the (for example) way-over-budget James Webb Space Telescope.
With the failure last week of a Russian Soyuz resupply launch intended for the ISS, getting cargo (but especially human beings) to the space station has become problematic.
A Soyuz rocket rocket crashed Wednesday minutes after lifting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The third stage of the Soyuz-U rocket was firing when something caused the vehicle’s RD-0110 engine to turn off early, scattering debris in the Altai region of Siberia more than 1,000 miles east of the launch site, according to Russian media reports.
The Soyuz-U’s third stage is almost identical to equipment used on the Soyuz-FG booster that propels human crews into orbit, according to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.
Getting people home from the ISS is an issue as well, as manned-space recoveries in the Siberian winter are dark (high latitudes) and cold.
…NASA flight engineer Michael Fossum, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa — are supposed to return home Nov. 16.
"The November crew has a little different issue," [NASA’s space station program manager Michael] Suffredini said. "If we’re not launching by then and we have to de-man space station, we pretty much have to do that probably by about the middle of November."
"One of our requirements is to land in daylight, and it has to be an hour from sunset or sunrise," Suffredini said. "On Nov. 19, we reach that cutoff and we go dark."
Ground controllers can run an unmanned ISS, but here’s some cost-avoidance advice: last one out catch the lights (and punch the de-orbit button).
Were this up to the Russians, I’d say none of it would come to pass. They simply assume more risk than their U.S. counterparts and generally seem more eager to return-to-flight. However, with the more risk-averse U.S. as the major bill-payer (using borrowed money from China, not an ISS participant), the space-cultural clash may prove to be quite interesting.