We investigate the perennial deadly hazards of operating on the world’s truly most remote supply route: the ‘road’ to the International Space Station.
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The fiery disintegration of a manned Russian Soyuz rocket above the steppe of Kazakhstan on October 11 highlights the perennial deadly hazards of operating on the world’s truly most remote supply route: the ‘road’ to the International Space Station orbiting between 330 and 435 kilometres above the earth.
In this case, the Soyuz occupants, US astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin, got lucky after what NASA described diplomatically as the mission’s successful “abort downrange”.
Because of a problem later identified as a faulty sensor, the launch terminated two minutes after blast-off. The men, who were to be the first members of the 58th expedition to the station, escaped in their capsule and were rescued on the ground 32 hairy minutes later.
Other ISS missions haven’t been so fortunate: on February 1, 2003 the space shuttle Columbia imploded on re-entry, killing all seven astronauts on board.
The Soyuz setback highlights an awkward rostering problem for NASA: since the cessation of the space shuttle program in 2011, the US has relied on ‘buying’ seats on the Soyuz to swap over crews on its half of the ISS.
Who said Uber pioneered ride-sharing? The US recently swallowed its pride and confirmed the acquisition of three extra Soyuz seats in 2019, amid concern that its program to replace the space shuttles was proving too ambitious.
But with a three-person crew due to blast off in a Soyuz in early December, the latest mission to the station has some chance of getting back on track.
The most expensive structure in the world – and, indeed, beyond – the ISS was built between 1998 and 2011 at a cost of $US150 billion. To date, 15 modules have been assembled (rather like a Lego set) with a further five to be added.
The maximum crew of six performs scientific experiments, eats, sleeps and exercises as the metal orbits the earth 15.5 times a day at a speed of 29,000 kilometres an hour.
Maintaining a semblance of normal life for the crew requires a large amount of provisions – an average of 2722 kilograms per mission. The transit of any goods – anything from toothpaste to heavy scientific equipment – needs to be planned painstakingly months in advance.
When it comes to supplying the ISS using unmanned craft, the procurement controllers have more flexibility because a mini United Nations of spacecraft regularly visit the station (all with different docking procedures).
Despite the perception that the ISS is exclusively a US-Russian concern, the program is actually a venture between five agencies: NASA, Russia’s Roscosmos, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, The European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
Thus, the station has been supplied by not only the shuttle and Russian craft such as the Progress and the Soyuz, but by unmanned milk runs from Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (also known as the Kounotori, or White Stork).
Whether the craft are manned or unmanned, the visits are eagerly anticipated by the space station’s cramped occupants. After all, a delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables makes for a welcome respite from the everyday diet of textureless, vacuum-packed mush.
(Sadly for the cosmonauts, vodka deliveries are off limits).
So far, the ISS has been visited by more than 150 craft – an average of slightly more than eight per year – including 50 crewed Soyuz, 70 Russian Progress one-way freight vessels and 37 space shuttles.
A key link in the ISS logistics chain is NASA’s Payload Operations Centre in Huntsville, Alabama. Described as the heartbeat of the ISS research operations, the centre co-ordinates all scientific experiments carried out on the station as well as the “payload activities” of the international partners.
In space, no-one can call roadside assist. As a result, equipment requiring regular replacement – such as the antenna, batteries and pumps – are kept on external pallets called ‘express logistics carriers’ and can be put in place by robotic arms.
Despite the supply mission setbacks, on November 2 this year the ISS celebrated 18 years of continuous habitation, eclipsing the previous record of just under 10 years set by the crew of the Soviet-era Mir station.
But nothing lasts forever, with the future of the ISS under review. While NASA and Roscosmos have pledged to co-operate on a replacement facility, tetchy on-the-ground relations between the two nations means there’s a likelihood they will go their own way.
In the meantime, the US is hardly enamoured with its ‘can I hitch a ride with you, comrade?’ approach and is working on its own crewing and supply options so as to mitigate its reliance on the Russians.
Both Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX have separate contracts to develop space ‘taxis’, but their timetable for crewed test flights originally scheduled for August and this month are behind schedule.
Suffice to say, there’s mounting pressure from Capitol Hill on the rival contractors to complete the new era craft sooner rather than later.
After all, in the extraterrestrial trucking game, it always helps to have a Plan B.
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