By NBC News space analyst
Special to MSNBC
updated 7/30/2005 11:30:36 AM ET 2005-07-30T15:30:36

With plans for an extra day docked to the space station now receiving official blessing, astronauts and ground specialists are developing plans on how best to exploit the time. New tasks on that day, and possibly on the third planned space walk, have been necessitated by the startling debris losses during the shuttle’s launch.

Facing a delay of uncertain duration before the arrival of the next shuttle mission, astronauts on the international space station have been grabbing hold of anything extra they can beg, borrow or steal from the shuttle Discovery to enhance the station's long-term habitability, and even its survivability.

The crew's activities are being supported by an aggressive support staff at NASA's Johnson Space Center, who are putting together shopping lists and refiguring budgets in light of this week's suspension of future shuttle flights.

The suspension, prompted by the unexpectedly large debris shedding from Discovery's external fuel tank during Tuesday's launch, will have an impact on the station crew's immediate needs — and potentially on NASA's scientific programs and diplomatic arrangements as well.

For now, NASA officials are focusing most intently on what the shuttle currently docked to the space station — the first shuttle to visit in almost three years, and perhaps the last to visit this year — can do to further support the crew there.

On Friday, shuttle deputy program manager Wayne Hale announced that an official request had been received from the space station program, and he expected the request to be approved over the weekend.

The extra day was made possible by power savings early in the mission that accumulated to the equivalent of a full day of usage. Hale explained that only a single extra day would be possible.

Hale said that the extra day could be used to fix the station's trouble-plagued motorized treadmill, which the station crew uses to keep fit and ward off the muscle-wasting effects of long-term weightlessness. Repairing the treadmill now, he added, would allow broken parts to be brought back to Earth immediately for repair and relaunch, perhaps aboard a Russian robot supply ship. There are no remaining spare parts currently on Earth.

Space scavenger hunt
Space engineers also have been drawing up plans to cannibalize any usable parts from the shuttle. "We've had our eyes on the light fixtures in the 'MPLM,'" one engineer told MSNBC.com on condition of anonymity, in a reference to the Italian-built Raffaello multipurpose logistics module that was brought to the station aboard Discovery.

There are at least half a dozen fixtures that could be removed once the Raffaello module is loaded with Earth-bound cargo and garbage. The equipment would be compatible with lighting fixtures inside the station's U.S. segment that have been burning out at an alarming rate — often leaving some parts of the station too dark for detailed work.

"When we asked for them before, we were told the crew wouldn't have time to disconnect them," the engineer said. But an extra docked day would provide more than enough manpower for this and other scavenging.

Everything from spare rolls of duct tape (the repair aid preferred by astronauts) to tools, cameras, laptops, consumables (such as food and batteries) and even spare clothing are being considered for this space scavenger hunt. The shuttle is already scheduled to give a slight boost to the station's orbit, and analysts are looking at ways to wring a little more push from the shuttle's fuel tanks.

"We've asked the team to go off and look at additional water transfer," Hale explained, referring to a spare water bag or two now reserved for shuttle use. "We're doing some extra nitrogen transfer," he added.

On Friday, in response to a question from MSNBC.com, Hale described a suggested addition to the already-scheduled third spacewalk. A motor that turns a large radiator panel outside the station has been malfunctioning mysteriously, and engineers now want to retrieve it for examination to determine if there is a generic problem that could soon impact other such motors on the station.

Schedule in limbo
The space station's immediate shortages may be lessened by such measures, but a postponement of future shuttle flights could pose threats to other aspects of the space station project as well.

It's not clear how long the hold on shuttle flights will last. A slip of two to four months would not be a big impact, since station assembly missions weren't expected to begin until later in 2006 anyway. But at this point, it's only prudent to assume the delay could last longer — and that would have serious repercussions.

The first shuttle mission to be impacted would be STS-121, the Atlantis mission that had been scheduled for September.

Like Discovery, Atlantis is supposed to bring up a pressurized cargo module, packed with more supplies and spare parts as well as several complex equipment racks for the station's Destiny laboratory. But the cargo on the current mission, plus the extra gear now being scrounged, should be able to carry the space station well into 2006, as long as Russia's robotic supply missions also continue.

Sometime in that time frame, the first flight of the European robotic transport craft (the ATV, for "Automated Transfer Vehicle") should occur — and just in time. Like Russia's Progress supply ships, the ATV can carry only equipment that can be passed through the 30-inch-wide tunnel leading through the docking port on the end of the station's Zvezda service module.

Currently, the cargo on the first ATV (dubbed "Jules Verne") is focused on enhancing the scientific capability of the station. But if the shuttle launch delay extends into 2006, the Europeans will need to make a nearly complete cargo change, replacing scientific equipment with more urgently needed crew supplies and generic spare parts.

Slots for astronauts
One other item of living, breathing "space cargo" would have to be removed from the near-term flight manifests: German astronaut Thomas Reiter, who was due to travel to the station on Atlantis and stay behind. He was part of a plan to bring the station back to its baseline three-person crew, upgrading the two-man skeleton crew that has been the rule for more than two years.

If Reiter doesn't get transferred onto the space station later this year, another important transfer will also be delayed. This is the credit transfer from the European Space Agency's bank account to Russia's Federal Space Agency, to pay for Reiter's slot on the station.

The Europeans are paying the Russians because officially, Reiter will be in a "Russian slot," according to longstanding agreements among the international partners. The Europeans agreed to pay tens of millions of dollars to occupy the slot instead, and the Russians have no doubt budgeted that cash in their own spending plans for late 2006. Without it, other important space projects may not be adequately funded.

NASA will have its own astronaut flight slot crisis late this year if the gap in shuttle flights has to extend into mid-2006. The Soyuz slated for October, which will carry cosmonaut Valery Tokarev and astronaut Bill McArthur (as well as millionaire space passenger Gregory Olsen), marks the last time the Russians are obligated to carry NASA personnel for free. Beginning in 2006, all seats on Soyuz missions will be assigned on a purely cash-and-carry basis. But NASA is forbidden by law to buy any such goods and services from Moscow.

NASA had developed a plan to dodge this problem by transporting all its future space station crew members aboard shuttles. McArthur himself was slated for a shuttle return next April — a scheme that would give him the U.S. mission duration record.

The Russians would still keep "emergency bailout seats" available to U.S. station astronauts on a barter basis with occasional Russian rides on space shuttles, but would not carry any Americans up or down under ordinary conditions.

Those deals, or course, would be voided by a substantial new shuttle delay. Instead, NASA would need supplemental appropriations to buy the space transportation services, and that would require congressional clearance. Officials have known about this impending crisis for years but had developed elaborate schemes to dodge it — schemes that would no longer be workable.

Further ripples
A protracted shuttle flight suspension would also deal a death blow to the 28-mission manifest for the last five years of the shuttle program. Slated to be retired for safety reasons by 2010, the shuttle fleet is also supposed to complete station assembly — at least to the point that expendable rockets and foreign space vehicles can keep the station functioning until a new generation of U.S. spaceships come on line.

With the clock ticking through months and months of no shuttle missions, and the adamantine drop-dead date of 2010 looming on the horizon, more and more of the major elements of the station would have to be shifted to expendable rockets. The Russians are developing a space-to-space tug called "Parom," assembled from off-the-shelf spacecraft components, that will be able to dock to station-bound payloads in parking orbits and haul them up to the station — for a fee. If NASA officials have no alternative, it may be an offer they can't refuse.

Even beyond the station program, a major shuttle delay will have serious repercussions. It may, for example, crush any renewed hope of rescuing the faltering Hubble Space Telescope. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin had expressed support for inserting one repair mission into the shuttle flight plan, but only after about half a dozen critical station components have been installed.

That would have happened sometime in 2008, perhaps, with a good chance of getting to Hubble before the telescope’s control systems break down.

Now the odds of the mission arriving in time have dropped dramatically — raising the frightening possibility that the telescope itself will literally drop dramatically out of the sky.

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