Competitive Exams: Current Affairs 2011: Space station troubles

Space station troubles

It was in July 2011 that the last of the Space Shuttles, Atlantis, made the final trip to the International Space Station. With the Shuttles'retirement, only Russia's Soyuz spacecraft can transport crew to and from the huge station that is orbiting the earth.

But with a question mark hanging over the Soyuz rocket that launches the manned capsule, there is a very real possibility that the station might have to be temporarily abandoned. The issue arose after a Soyuz rocket, which lifted off from the Baikonur cosmodrome on August 24, malfunctioned.

The station is well stocked and can easily support the three Russians, two Americans, and one Japanese who are currently living aboard for several months. The problem is that the replacement crew, who are scheduled to leave for the station on September 21, is likely to be delayed while the Russians make sure it is safe for them to travel on the Soyuz rocket. But the astronauts on the space station may not be able to remain till the next crew arrive. That's because the two Soyuz capsules docked to the space station, in which they are to return home, are time limited. Each of those capsules is certified to remain in space for only 200 days. Consequently, one set of three astronauts is now expected to leave the space station later this month and the remaining three in mid November.

The Soyuz rocket is a lineal descendant of the launcher that carried the world's first satellite, Sputnik, and subsequently the first human to travel in to space, Yuri Gagarin.

Some media reports suggest that poor pay, an ageing workforce, and inadequate state support are leading to a decline in quality standards in Russia's once well funded space sector. After the Soyuz failure, the Russian government ordered an industry wide review and improvement of quality control procedures.

It is, however, clearly desirable to have an alternative to the Soyuz capsule and rocket, which can provide much needed back up. But it could take a few years for US spaceflight companies, like Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), to develop the necessary man rated space hardware. Till then, Russia will have to shoulder the responsibility for taking astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Courtesy: The Hindu and Times of India