NASA officials said yesterday that the international space station is running so low on food that its two crewmen have had to cut back on their eating and may have to abandon the orbiting laboratory if a scheduled supply flight fails to arrive on Christmas Day.
The space station's program manager, William Gerstenmaier, said U.S. astronaut Leroy Chiao and Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov had enough food to last one to two weeks beyond Christmas. "We haven't picked an exact time or an exact day, but if we need to bring the crew home, we'll bring the crew home," Gerstenmaier said.
The Soyuz space craft, left, shown docking with the international space station Oct. 16, brought Leroy Chiao and Salizhan Sharipov to the space station but did not bring enough food for their six-month stay.
(Nasa Via Reuters)
Crew commander Chiao, 44, a chemical engineer from California, and Sharipov, 40, a colonel in the Russian air force, left Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome Oct. 13 aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and docked at the space station three days later for a six-month stay.
Gerstenmaier told reporters in a televised news conference that flight planners knew when the mission began that food supplies could be "extremely tight" at times for Chiao and Sharipov, "and we were tracking this all the time."
"We asked for three separate food audits," he said, and after the third determined that "it's going to be very, very close." Still, he added, "we're not in any contingency situation, and while this [Christmas supply flight] is extremely critical, it's no more critical than some previous flights. We're making do with the resources we have."
Resupplying the space station with food, water, spare parts and other consumables has become a constant challenge since last year's Columbia disaster grounded the workhorse space shuttle. The first post-Columbia shuttle launch is scheduled for May.
Without a heavy lift vehicle, planners have had to rely on the limited capacity of Russia's small Progress cargo spacecraft for resupply. Gerstenmaier said flight controllers have frequently sacrificed food space on Progress flights to send spare parts and science experiments aloft.
Gerstenmaier defended the need for science, saying that even with shuttle-imposed austerity "we're not staying on station just to stay on station. We don't want to [change things] so all we're doing is just hanging out."
Mission flight surgeon Sean Roden said planners last week cut Chiao's and Sharipov's caloric intake from 3,000 calories per day to "2,500 or 2,700 calories," after the two men started eating into the 45-day reserve that NASA always wants to have on hand.
Roden said the crewmen's food -- a half-Russian, half-American diet -- is divided into daily rations of varying caloric content. He said Chiao and Sharipov were asked to mix and match entrees, soups, desserts and other items to achieve the required reduction.
Nevertheless, Roden said the crew's health "is excellent," and both men are still following an exercise regimen critical for maintaining muscle mass and tone in a weightless environment. "Their food consumption is going to be optimal," Roden said.