CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Astronauts may need to take the unprecedented step of temporarily abandoning the International Space Station if last week's Russian launch failure prevents new crews from flying there this fall.
Until officials figure out what went wrong with Russia's essential Soyuz rockets, there will be no way to launch any more astronauts before the current residents have to leave in mid-November.
The unsettling predicament comes just weeks after NASA's final space shuttle flight.
"We have plenty of options," NASA's space station program manager, Mike Suffredini, assured reporters yesterday. "We'll focus on crew safety, as we always do."
Abandoning the space station, even for a short period, would be an unpleasant last resort for the world's five space agencies that have spent decades working on the project. Astronauts have been living there since 2000, and the goal is to keep it going until 2020.
Suffredini said flight controllers could keep a deserted space station operating indefinitely, as long as all major systems are working properly. The risk to the station goes up, however, if no one is on board to fix equipment.
Six astronauts from three countries are living on the orbiting complex now. Three are due to leave next month; the other three are supposed to check out in mid-November.
The Sept. 22 launch of the next crew -- the first to fly in this post-shuttle era -- already has been delayed indefinitely. Russia's Soyuz spacecraft have been the sole means of getting full-time station residents up and down for two years.
To keep the orbiting outpost with a full staff of six for as long as possible, the one American and two Russians due to return to Earth on Sept. 8 will remain on board at least an extra week.
As for supplies, the space station is well stocked and could go until next summer, Suffredini said. Atlantis dropped off a year's supply of goods last month on the final space shuttle voyage. The unmanned craft destroyed Wednesday was carrying 3 tons of supplies.
For now, operations are normal in orbit, Suffredini noted, and the additional week on board for half the crew will mean additional science research.
The Soyuz has been extremely reliable over the decades; this was the first failure in 44 Russian supply runs for the space station. Even with such a good track record, many in and outside NASA were concerned about retiring the space shuttles before a replacement was ready to fly astronauts.
Until a Russian investigation team comes up with a cause for the accident and a repair plan, the launch and landing schedules remain in question.
A computer detected an anomaly in the Russian rocket's third stage Wednesday and shut down the engine prematurely. The wreckage fell into a remote, wooded section of Siberia and none of the debris has been recovered yet.