Yesterday, Boeing’s Starliner successfully lifted off on its second attempted test flight to the International Space Station. As reported by NASA, there were some non-critical glitches along the way, with a couple of manuevering engines shutting down early, as well as a cooling system taking longer to start up than intended.
Neither glitch ended the mission or would have threatened its completion.
Aboard the ship are tons of supplies for the ISS and a “Rosie the Rocketeer” that will record passenger data.
Boeing’s Starliner, if it completes its tests successfully, will eventually be certified for human spaceflight and will join SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has already made several roundtrip flights to the space station.
Both Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts shortly before the discontinuation of the shuttle program, with SpaceX receiving the smaller contract but completing it well-before Boeing, which has experienced a number of set-backs, including an unsuccessful unmanned rendezvous with the ISS last year.
NASA considers having two different suppliers with man-rated capsules to be a goal that will enhance mission reliability and give the space agency the launch capacity it needs to support future missions.
All of that is well and good, but, I think a little more than that is needed.
To date, the United States has lost 14 astronauts in space (three more on the ground and several others during various training accidents not involving spacecraft).
We have also watched, on screen and on television, one real-world “rescue in space” and a handful of fictional ones in the form of the films Marooned, Countdown, The Martian, Gravity, and the fictionalized account of the real thing – Apollo 13.
A typical plot device of many of those shows (and others I can’t remember the titles of) is the inability of NASA, or any other space-faring nation – to be able to get a rescue vehicle up into orbit in time in order to save the astronauts and to prevent everyone from going out at night, pointing up to the sky and, at the appropriate moment, pointing at a dim moving star while saying “there goes the space coffin”.
In fact, in Marooned, David Janssen does manage to get a rescue mission approved, but its kludgy, high risk and a long shot.
I think there’s a better way.
If Starliner gets approved, NASA should amend its contract with Boeing and SpaceX (and ULA and any others that might be required) to incorporate the creation and maintenance of a “rescue ship”, or ships, whose profile is being capable of launch within, say, 48 hours (24 is better, on call would be best but nigh on impossible to achieve and support), have the fuel and orbital capacity to reach any NEO location that astronauts and cosmonauts might be sent to, be operable by one, two at the most crew and have a carrying capacity for, or, say, up to 8 total (2 crew, 6 passengers).
Likewise, a “rescue cargo” ship maintained in the same readiness capacity, with the requisite work done to have appropriate supplies prepped and available.
Unlike the Titanic, there should also be sufficient of these on hand to be able to rescue the entire compliment of the ISS, or whatever other mission might get into trouble. Yes, there are Soyuz capsules permanently docked at the ISS to serve as “lifeboats”, but what happens when a cascading series of problems renders them unuseable (or, worse, useable has habitat but incapable of re-entry, leading to a “all nine astronauts are safely sardined in the Soyuz, but their air supply is expected to run out within two days….”).
In essence, I’m suggesting that now, or very soon to now, will be time to begin talking about building in extra capacity and prepping for such possibilities.