NASA may need to temporarily abandon the International Space Station this fall because of safety concerns about the Russian spacecraft that shuttles astronauts to the station, a top space official said Monday.
“We’re going to do what’s safest for the crew and the space station,” NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini said.
The announcement follows a decision by Russian space agency Roscosmos to push back a planned manned mission to the station late next month as experts continue to investigate what caused an unmanned Russian supply ship to crash last week shortly after launch. The part of the Soyuz rocket that failed during the incident is similar to the ones used to launch manned crafts.
NASA says that no official decision has been made but that their safety concerns will need to be allayed soon in order to prevent a temporary “de-crewing” of the station in late November, when the final members of the station’s current six-man crew are set to return to Earth.
A temporary evacuation of the station “would be a huge blow to NASA, which just completed construction of the ISS earlier this year, and has continuously occupied the station for 11 years,” the Houston Chronicle reports.
The six astronauts currently living in the station (three Russians, two Americans and one from Japan) will ride home in one of two Soyuz crafts already docked at the ISS. Those ships are only rated to stay in orbit for a set amount of time, so the crew does not have the option of staying indefinitely, Space.com reports.
Half of the crew was set to return on Sept. 8, although they will now spend an extra week in space before returning. The final three members are set to return to Earth in mid-November.