Lost in Space? How to Rescue Distressed Spacecraft.

Plans for crewed launches, both government and civilian, are on the rise. Without rescue plans in place, today’s astronauts journey at their own peril.

Launch of the Inspiration4 Mission. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the first civilian crewed mission from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., Sept. 15, 2021. Credit: U.S. Space Force | Staff Sgt. JT Armstrong
The crewmembers of the Apollo 13 mission, step aboard the USS Iwo Jima, prime recovery ship for the mission, following splashdown and recovery operations in the South Pacific Ocean, April 17, 1970. Credit: NASA

What exactly is in-space rescue?

In-space rescue refers to rescuing astronauts from a disabled spacecraft in space, analogous to rescuing sailors from a sunken submarine. Only after tragic accidents were submarine rescue capabilities developed. The hope is to have in-space rescue capabilities in place before we need them.

Why did you start investigating the issue of in-space rescue?

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board report described how the tragic outcome of the Space Shuttle Columbia could have been avoided had officials recognized the shuttle’s thermal protection system was compromised. During launch, a large piece of insulation broke loose from the External Tank and struck the leading edge of Columbia’s wing. In an in-space rescue scenario, the next shuttle planned for launch, Atlantis, could have been adapted for a rescue mission. It would have been challenging — as it would have required conservation of resources and spacewalks between the two vehicles — but feasible.

What are some of the gaps for in-space rescue capability currently?

Currently, in-space rescue plans and capabilities are not in place prior to launching crewed missions. For example, the Inspiration4 mission did not have a docking mechanism. If a problem arises, a docking mechanism can provide a method for conducting a rescue.

What are some near-term solutions for crewed launches?

The near-term solutions require two fundamental actions to be taken. The first is to ensure crewed spacecraft have docking mechanisms. Eleven years ago, the partner nations of the International Space Station (ISS) adopted the International Docking System Standard (IDSS). Any spacecraft with an IDSS compliant docking mechanism can dock with any other like-equipped craft. Installation of IDSS compliant docking systems on spacecraft will help to close the existing gap.

The second International Docking Adapter. IDA-2, will be one of two connection points for commercial crew spacecraft visiting the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

What are some ideas you’d like to see explored for future development?

To help make in-space rescue practical, it will be important that future crewed spacecraft have the capacity to support the crew and passengers for additional time in the event of contingencies.

How would a rescue launch-on-demand system operate, and who would be responsible for coordination?

The In-Space Rescue Capability Gap details the steps needed to provide rescue capacity for human spaceflight.

We have partnerships with other spacefaring nations. How might international collaboration be used to solve this in the future?

There are presently three nations that have the capability to launch humans to space — China, Russia, and the United States. Other nations will likely develop spacefaring capabilities in the near future. Use of the International Docking System Standard for crewed and cargo spacecraft will facilitate future rescue capabilities with interoperable docking capabilities.

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