Food is running so low aboard the international space station that flight controllers have instructed the two crewmen to cut back on calories, at least until a Russian supply ship arrives in a little over two weeks.Without the Space Shuttle, the ISS is a lame duck. And frankly, the Space Shuttle as a system needs "mending with a new one", replacement rather than modification/repair. If the controllers had planned to dip into the emergency stocks as part of normal operations, that would have meant that the system was dangerously over-stretched. "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold", and everyone just crossing their fingers and hoping that not the slightest thing goes wrong is not the way to run a space programme without killing someone.
If anything goes wrong with the Christmas Day delivery, NASA will have no choice, given the grounding of its shuttle fleet, but to abandon the station and bring the men home in early January.
This cargo ship "is very critical, there's no question about that," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's space station program manager. But he said it is no more critical than previous supply runs, which have been conducted exclusively by the Russians ever since last year's Columbia disaster.
He estimated there is enough food to last seven to 14 days beyond Christmas Day, after which there will be nothing left.
American astronaut Leroy Chiao and Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov are barely two months into their six-month stay aboard the space station.
Last week, after a pantry audit found supplies running surprisingly low, they were put on restricted diets in hopes of trimming 5 percent to 10 percent of their daily intake of 3,000 calories.
NASA and the Russian Space Agency were stunned to learn last week that the astronauts had begun digging into the 45-day food reserve -- which exists to protect against a delayed supply shipment -- in mid-November.
Flight controllers knew food and water were tight when the crew was launched from Kazakhstan on October 13, but had not expected to dip into the reserves for another week.
But it's not quite that bad. From Space.com :
A Russian-built cargo spacecraft, Progress 16, was originally slated to haul fresh food, water and other supplies to the station last month, but delayed until late December.As in Mars. Another reason why I think we should establish a permanent base on the Moon first. And as a practice run for a Moonbase, the ISS is performing a great service. It's also a good experiment on international space co-operation. We've learnt a lot - like every time you add another country, you multiply the price by a factor somewhere between 0.9 and 10.0. So pick your partners well.
"We're not just staying on-station to stay on-station in survival mode," Gerstenmaier said. "We want them to have food and water and science to do."
If the Expedition 10 crew does have to evacuate the ISS, the facility would be configured much like it is during a two-person spacewalk or Soyuz relocation.
Chiao and Sharipov would power down computers, set flight controls to be handled by the ground and close the hatches behind them as they boarded their Soyuz spacecraft and returned to Earth, said Expedition 10 flight director Annette Hasbrook, adding that the astronauts may clean out filters more than usual should the station be left uncrewed for an extended time.
Much of the station's supply stem from a lack of ISS-bound space shuttle flights, which have more room for cargo than Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. NASA's space shuttle fleet has been grounded since the Feb. 1, 2003, when the shuttle Columbia broke up during reentry killing its seven-astronaut crew.
"The shuttle gives you a lot more degrees of freedom and a lot more variability with cargo," Gerstenmaier said, adding that ISS controllers have learned how to stretch their capabilities to operate the station without frequent shuttle flights. "We're really ready for when the shuttle comes, or if the shuttle doesn't come."
The next space shuttle flight, STS-114 Discovery, is currently expected to launch in May 2005.
"It's been a tremendous balancing act," Gerstenmaier said. "But it's not much different than what's going to have to be done for the exploration era where you'll be much farther from home.