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Space station may fall into disrepair

Failure to fix oxygen unit could leave orbiting lab crewless.

Without a working oxygen generator, the International Space Station could be left adrift. Credit: © NASA

The International Space Station will be effectively condemned if crew members cannot repair its faulty oxygen generator by the end of next month, a British space scientist has warned.

The current crew is scheduled to be replaced at the end of October. If the generator is not reliably repaired by then, space officials may decide against sending up a fresh crew because there would be no guarantee of enough oxygen to last their stay. Such a decision could send the US$100-billion station spiralling into decay.

"It would be a major setback," comments André Balogh, a space expert at Imperial College London, who helped to plan the European Space Agency's activities aboard the station. "If it is left uncrewed and unsupplied, things are going to get very difficult."

Needing a fix

The Russian-built oxygen generator, called Elektron, mysteriously shut down on 8 September. The current crew, American Mike Fincke and Russian Gennady Padalka, have been unable to get it going again for more than a few hours at a time, despite numerous salvage attempts.

NASA stresses that Fincke and Padalka are not in immediate danger. They have back-up oxygen, in the form of spare canisters and oxygen-releasing 'candles', to last another 140 days, which is long beyond their scheduled return.

But the Elektron unit's failure opens up the possibility that the next crew in line, US astronaut Leroy Chiao and Russia's Salizhan Sharipov, will not get the chance to replace the current team. If that happens, the space station may never be fit to live on again, Balogh says.

"If it is not continuously inhabited, its habitability is seriously damaged," he told news@nature.com. "The longer they leave it without crew, the harder it will be to send people back."

Abandoned ship

If the station was left uninhabited, space scientists could be left with their research plans in ruins. The space station was conceived as an orbiting lab that would play host to a range of scientific experiments. But because of setbacks, not least the Columbia shuttle disaster in February 2003, the station is staffed by a skeleton crew who can do little more than day-to-day maintenance.

Denied its primary transport vehicle since the crash, the space station currently relies on Russia's Soyuz capsules to ferry crew and on Progress vessels to deliver cargo. Neither has the carrying capacity of the shuttle. The European Space Agency's Columbus lab module, for example, is still awaiting launch and is now in danger of never making it into space at all.

But the aftermath of the shuttle disaster is not the only reason for the station's difficulties, says Balogh. He says the United States may be turning its back on the space station, even if it overcomes its current problems. President George W. Bush has famously announced that he wants to see an American on Mars, a plan that would not involve the space station.

"The plan seems to be to phase out the space station by 2010 or thereabouts," Balogh says. If the United States wants to get to Mars, he adds, it will need to start by developing a fresh programme to go to the Moon, bypassing the stranded station on the way.

If the United States does give the space station the cold shoulder, its collaborators including Russia, Japan and Europe will not be impressed. They have all spent vast sums on the project, and would not appreciate being left in the lurch. "It's called the International Space Station for a reason," Balogh says.

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Hopkin, M. Space station may fall into disrepair. Nature (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/news040920-6

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