ARE NOT ESSENTIALLY MARINO. But they are not far from this. The three astronauts on board the International Space Station watched as a rescue squad expelled from their failed rocket last week. Suddenly, the suspicious hole in their escape ship now seems much more disturbing.
The commander of the German ISS Alexander Gerst together with the Russian Sergey Prokopyev and the American Serena Aunon-Chancellor were supposed to return to Earth in December.
Now, they are not so sure.
NASA, however, is trying to be optimistic.
"I talked to the crew … they're doing great," said the head of the astronaut, Reid Wiseman, last week. "Everyone is in a good mood, they are ready to serve the will of the program, they will stay up there as long as we need it."
Exactly how long it will be unknown.
The problem is … in the air.
They have enough food and air supplies for many more months.
And there are two US and one Japanese cargo modules that are about to be pushed into orbit.
The problem is the availability, or not, of a capsule able to bring them back to the atmosphere on the mainland.
The Russian Soyuz rocket program was founded after a "serious anomaly" caused the emergency expulsion of the two astronauts he was transporting to the ISS.
Both managed to return to Earth. But those already up there may have to wait for another round to be approved.
"We will have to see where the data leads them," said the head of integration of ISS mission operations, Kenny Todd. "And if this is a month, or if it's two months, or six – I can not really speculate on the length of it."
But NASA and Roscosmos are also concerned about the conditions of the Soyuz modules currently anchored in the space station as "lifeboats".
One has an expiration date that expires in January. Its components are evaluated only for a period of 200 days in space. Subsequently, seals and soft components could start to die.
But there's another, little problem.
A 2 mm hole was found perforated in the skin of the orbital component of a second Soyuz MS-09 capsule at the start of this year.
An amateur attempt had been made to plug it – and hide it. But the simple glue used to fill the hole has weakened and crumbled into space, causing a small but noticeable loss of atmosphere in the space stations in August.
A search for the crew found the hole.
He was quickly patched up.
But the recriminations are underway, with Russia coming to suggest that one of the NASA astronauts could have sabotaged the ship.
Speculation aside, the exact extent of the drill damage to the Soyuz was not determined by a walk in space. Did he puncture or break the vital heat shield of the adjacent landing module?
Even a tiny imperfection could be a matter of life or death for those who are inside the Soyuz, as it crashes into the atmosphere like a superheated fireball.
If NASA and Roscosmos are not entirely sure that the Soyuz capsule is safe, it could be ejected from the station to free its docking port.
Another capsule should be prepared and launched.
But it would take at least 200 days before it happens.
The Soyuz program is troubled. There have been two recent launch failures, raising questions about the slippage of quality control standards.
"The vehicle that will present a replacement crew is moving through its normal development process," says Todd. "Our Russian colleagues would choose the best way to handle that situation, and this is all still T.B.D. (to be determined)".
NASA has already indicated that it would prefer to keep the crew on the station.
But he only has one part he says.
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The United States has not been able to launch or recover human beings from orbiting the final space shuttle program flight in July 2011. And private companies – such as SpaceX and Boeing – that are expected to build new manned modules continue to slip back schedules
So he must rely on the Russians.
The only other nation capable of putting people in space is China. And the United States refuses to work with their space agency.
Ironically, with the bases of the Soyuz fleet, China is now the only nation with an operational crewed space flight program. And its docking system is compatible with the ISS.
If the three astronauts attempt to return to a suspected Soyuz, the ISS itself will find itself empty for the first time in 18 years.
NASA says there are steps to remotely monitor the station from the ground.
But many of the experiments should be abandoned. Two spacewalks planned for this month have already been postponed indefinitely.
"This is something we are always prepared for," said Todd. "I am very confident that I can fly for a significant period of time."
"If the pumps do their job, and all the other systems – the solar arrays continue to rotate, and we keep the batteries charged – there's nothing that says we can not just keep doing holes in the sky and make a minimum amount to command. "
But if something goes wrong – and it usually happens – the space station could be in danger. The $ 150 billion space station could start slipping out of its orbit, and spiraling toward the ground.
Todd, however, remained optimistic: "We are able to tolerate some failures, some significant failures and continue to manage the station in a disorderly way".