As a new crew prepares to lift off tomorrow for the international space station, NASA officials say they are less worried than they were two weeks ago about problems with its oxygen generator and growing shortages of food and spare parts.
NASA's Oct. 1 announcement that the planned return to flight of the space shuttle fleet would be delayed at least until May of next year had triggered fears that the $39 billion orbiting laboratory's chronic problems with breakdowns and supplies could get worse.
NASA officials now say jury-rigged repairs are keeping the vital but balky Elektron oxygen generator running part time, building up a reserve so that the new crew will not face a shortage by year's end.
Space station Program Manager William Gerstenmaier said, however, that engineers will need to monitor food consumption carefully to ensure that astronaut Leroy Chiao and cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov will be well supplied until a scheduled Russian cargo flight arrives Christmas Day.
Overall, Gerstenmaier sounded considerably more upbeat than he did in late September when he suggested that food shortages and continued problems with the Russian-built oxygen generator could force evacuation of the station if resupply were delayed.
"We're watching our consumables closely, and we're in pretty good shape," Gerstenmaier said in a recent telephone interview. "Every day we run the Elektron helps us. I don't see any game breakers out there."
"Expedition 10" Commander Chiao, 44, a chemical engineer from Danville, Calif., and Flight Engineer Sharipov, 40, a colonel in the Russian air force, are scheduled to lift off from the Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft at 11:06 p.m. Eastern time tomorrow. Docking at the station is planned for 12:14 a.m. Eastern time Saturday.
Chiao is a three-time space shuttle veteran, while Sharipov has flown aboard the shuttle once. Barring catastrophe, the pair will spend slightly more than six months aboard the station, marking the first time that both crew members are of Asian extraction.
Russian Space Forces Test Cosmonaut Yuri Shargin, 44, will accompany Chiao and Sharipov on the Soyuz flight and perform experiments aboard the station for eight days before returning with the current crew: Russian Commander Gennady Padalka and U.S. Flight Engineer Edward "Mike" Fincke.
During planning for Expedition 10, it appeared that the space shuttle, grounded since last year's Columbia tragedy, would make its first post-Columbia flight in March, while Chiao and Sharipov were still aboard. But hurricane-aggravated delays in implementing new shuttle safety measures forced NASA to push the launch date back to May, at the earliest.
NASA officials said Chiao and Sharipov will spend considerable time preparing the station to receive the shuttle: "They will pre-pack cargos for the shuttle to take back," Expedition 10 manager Susan Brand said in a telephone news conference. "They will also reconfigure stowage spaces."
The station depends on the shuttle for the majority of its spare parts and resupply, and engineers have delayed some major repairs because the Russian cargo craft currently handling replenishment are too small to carry major equipment. The station for more than two years has needed a new "control moment" gyroscope to help keep it positioned properly in space.
Gerstenmaier, however, welcomed the shuttle delay as an opportunity to prepare the station better for its eventual arrival. Further delays, he added, should not harm the station's ability to function. "We've done the consumables analysis both ways," Gerstenmaier said. "Whether the shuttle launches or doesn't launch, we look stable with what we have."
Still, the new crew, like the old, is likely to spend lots of hours on nagging maintenance problems that have plagued the station. For example, Fincke will have to show Chiao how to repair cooling units in non-functioning U.S. space suits, Gerstenmaier said.