Veteran astronauts propose new space station law

Debris from the reentry of the Russian space station Mir. (Credit: AP)

In a letter written to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and posted to SpaceRef last week, a contingent of veteran astronauts, while urging that the space shuttle not be retired, made a very interesting proposition:  A new, international rule for large objects in orbit.

So, what is this rule?  The letter states, “Any object placed in orbit that is too large for an uncontrolled reentry must have a spacecraft available to support independent EVA repairs.”  In short, the adoption of this rule would require the maintenance of the Space Shuttle as a viable craft beyond the last currently-scheduled launch later this month.  The Space Shuttle is the only spacecraft currently in operation with its own airlock and robotic arm – components necessary to conduct “independent” extra-vehicular inspections and repairs.

NASA's space station Skylab. (Credit: NASA)

Let’s take a step back for a moment.  Why is the ability to conduct independent EVA repairs important?  Back in 1979, Skylab, NASA’s troubled but pioneering space station, suffered an uncontrolled reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.  The event became an international fiasco with hyperpublicized potential for debris impacts in populated areas.  (Debris did land unexpectedly in Australia, though no injuries or significant damage were reported.) 

Should current or future space stations suffer damage from a meteor or orbiting debris, the ability to conduct an independent EVA and repair would be necessary to prevent that station from eventually falling victim to an uncontrolled reentry.  -And the impact may not be as forgiving as was Skylab’s. 

In general, I don’t disagree with the proposition, though I’m not sure continuing to pay through the nose to keep the shuttle aloft is the way to go.  Perhaps there is even a hint of a commercial service market here, with on-orbit tele-operated inspection and repair space-tugs available for a fee?  Certainly, I feel the necessity of rapid orbital inspection and repair is a pressing one, which deserves a conversation of its own.

Food for thought.

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