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Space station outfitted to handle a crowd

The international space station's departing commander says that providing emergency refuge for a shuttle crew would strain resources on the orbital outpost.
This video image shows outgoing space station crew members Salizhan Sharipov and Leroy Chiao in the front row. In the back row, from left, are Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori, incoming Russian commander Sergei Krikalov and NASA's John Phillips.NASA TV via AP
/ Source: Reuters

The international space station would be rather cramped if ever called on to serve its new role as an emergency refuge for a damaged NASA shuttle, the departing station commander said Monday.

"Having the shuttle crew as well as the long-duration (space station) crew members is going to be a strain," NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao, who plans to complete a six-month stay in orbit on Saturday, said during an in-flight news conference.

NASA expects to resume shuttle flights next month after a hiatus of more than two years following the Feb. 1, 2003, disintegration of shuttle Columbia, which killed all seven astronauts on board.

The space agency plans to house future shuttle crews aboard the space station temporarily if their ships are too badly damaged to return to Earth.

To prepare the station as a safe haven, NASA and its Russian partner agency have begun stocking it with extra food, water, oxygen and other critical supplies and spare parts.

Change of command
Chiao, the station commander, and Russian flight engineer Salizhan Sharipov on Sunday welcomed their replacements: veteran Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who assumes command of the outpost, and NASA flight engineer John Phillips.

Traveling with the new station crew is Italian researcher Roberto Vittori, who will return to Earth with Chiao and Sharipov on a Russian spacecraft on April 24 following a weeklong visit.

"All of our major goals have been accomplished," Chiao told reporters during a news conference via satellite. "The station is in good shape. We're ready to come home."

The space station remains one short of the usual three-person crew until the shuttle, which can ferry more supplies than the Russian craft, resumes its missions servicing the space outpost.

Role in return to flight
In addition to maintaining the station and conducting science experiments, Krikalev and Phillips are scheduled to play a critical role in NASA's plan to return the shuttle fleet to flight.

The shuttle Discovery is targeted for launch between May 15 and June 3 on the first mission since the accident.

Before Discovery docks at the station, shuttle commander Eileen Collins plans to somersault the ship in front of the station so Krikalev and Phillips can take images that engineers will scour for signs of damage to the orbiter's heat shield.

The station crew also will help with inspections using a new 50-foot (15-meter) sensor-laden boom attached to the shuttle's robot arm to inspect the wings and other critical areas.

Columbia was destroyed because a piece of foam insulation fell off the shuttle's external fuel tank during launch and smashed a hole in the ship's left wing.

The damage went undetected until the shuttle attempted to glide through the atmosphere. Hot gases ate into the wing and destroyed the ship.

Of more immediate concern to the new station crew is figuring out where things are.

"There's a lot more stuff here — more equipment, more spare parts and more trash that hasn't been able to go down (back to Earth) because of a lack of shuttles," said Phillips, who visited the space station during a shuttle mission four years ago.