14 March 2009
News - Habitat (Bad)
Tiny Debris, Big Consequences
ISS crew boarded Soyuz as a precaution against debris
by G B Leatherwood
On Thursday, 2009 March 12, a tiny piece of space debris from an old rocket motor caused the three astronauts aboard the International Space Station ( ISS) to don their space suits and hustle to the attached Soyuz spacecraft just in case—just in case the 13-centimeter-diameter (about five inches wide) poked a hole in their home away from home.

According to the New York Times, Col. E. Michael Finke of the US Air Force, Col. Yury. V. Lonchakov of the Russian Air Force, and Mission Specialist Sandra H. Magnus had already turned in for the night Wednesday when they were alerted about the debris about to pass on Thursday. Josh Byerly, a spokesman for NASA, said “It’s enough we were worried about the crew, and they were taking an abundance of caution.”

The ISS crew has prepared to abandon ship five times since construction started in 1998, and usually the crew can nudge the station out of the way, but this notice didn’t give them time to do so.

The crew entered the space lifeboat at 12:34 p.m. US Eastern time, the debris passed uneventfully at 12:39 p.m., and the crew went back into the station and back to work reconfiguring station systems for normal operations six minutes later.

So what’s the big deal? Well, for starters, keep in mind the terrific speed at which even the tiniest object is moving in orbit. Even something the diameter of a CD traveling at orbital speed could punch its way through the station’s relatively thin walls, strike any number of vulnerable and vital components, and cause an explosive decompression typically found in a David Cronenberg movie.

For another thing, one minor problem could lead to another, which could result in the crew having to abandon the station and return to Earth in their Soyuz lifeboat. Something else we don’t want to think about.

And what if there had been not just three, but the full complement of seven astronauts that will soon be living there?

Here in the Space Future Journal we usually focus on space tourism, but this seemingly minor incident raises numerous questions about a tourist craft or habitat, especially given the recent collision of a U.S. and Russian satellite on 12 February 2009.

Precautions must be taken, practiced, and considered as space tourism evolves…another careful step to be taken across the border of the next frontier.
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G B Leatherwood 14 March 2009
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