Critics of NASA aren’t saying “I told you so” yet, but some of them are surely muttering it under their breath. The word from the space agency last week was that the International Space Station (ISS), the American-led, $100-billion skyliner that has been continually occupied by astronauts for more than a decade, may have to be evacuated by early December if the Russian space agency can’t sort out what caused an unmanned Soyuz rocket on a resupply mission to crash into Siberia on Aug. 24, scattering nearly two tons of cargo across a barren stretch near the Mongolian border. Since post-shuttle NASA now relies on Soyuz rockets to carry American astronauts up and down, it may mean everyone out of the pool till the booster malfunction can be analyzed and fixed.
Things weren’t supposed to happen this way. When the final space shuttle was at last mothballed in July, space planners accepted that it would be a few years at least before the U.S. had a new way to put astronauts in space. That’s not as bad as it seems: NASA was similarly grounded from 1975 to 1981, between the Apollo and shuttle programs. And while we didn’t have a space station that needed tending back then, we also weren’t on friendly terms with the Russians — who these days are happy to sell us seats aboard their workhorse Soyuz, a booster that first flew in 1966 and has since logged 745 safe launches against just 21 failures.