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The coolant system failure on the International Space Station this weekend and the upcoming spacewalks being planned to fix it is a dramatic and fascinating story, capturing the interest of the general public while causing some news pundits to express fear and dread about science fiction scenerios of disasters in space.
The situation is hardly that death-defying. The station’s cooling systems have a lot of redundancy, all of which are being used to good effect. Moreover, the spacewalk repair to install a replacement pump module, though challenging, is exactly the kind of thing the astronauts have been trained to do. I expect them to do it with few problems. I would be far more surprised if they have serious difficulties and fail to get it done.
What this failure foreshadows, however, is the future on ISS. As the years pass and systems age, there will be an increasing need to replace parts. For the last three years NASA has packed every shuttle flight with as many spare parts as possible, and intends to continue to do so on the remaining two or three flights. This is why there are four spare pump modules already available on the station.
However, the space shuttle is going away, and after that last flight sometime next year there will simply be no way for several years to quickly launch large and heavy units of equipment up into space. Though the European and Japanese robot modules as well as the Falcon 9 can haul cargo to ISS, these launch options are not as capable or as flexible as the shuttle, which not only can bring large units into space but can use its robot arm and manuevability to aid in any repairs. Moreover, its ability to bring large units back to Earth permits engineers to do detailed analysis of any failures, after the fact. With the shuttle gone, all these capabilities will go with it.
Thus, if the last large spare part of any essential system fails, we will be faced with few options. Either we will have to shut down a large part of ISS to keep it going, or abandon it completely.
This second option is especially worrisome and should be avoided at all costs. If the station’s orbit decays enough to cause it to fall back to Earth, it is big enough for very substantial sections to hit the ground and do damage.
That we are faced with this terrible situation speaks volumes about the short-sightedness of the previous and present administrations, as well as the Congresses who have approved or revised anything these administrations have proposed for the last six years. Since George Bush first decided in 2004 to retire the shuttle in 2010 but not fly a replacement until 2014 at the earliest, this dilemma has been staring us in the face, a point I made repeatedly on the John Batchelor Show as well as later in my columns for UPI. Yet, no one in Washington has been willing to deal with this reality, then or now.
And why has no one in Washington been willing to deal with this as well as a host of other points of reality? The answer to that question could probably explain a lot about the problems presently challenging the limited abilities of modern American government.