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NASA: International Space Station May Have To Go Unmanned

The International Space Station may have to fly solo this fall. All of the astronauts, NASA said today, might have to leave the station in late November if Russian spacecrafts can't make trips to the station.

The AP reports:

If Russian Soyuz rockets remain grounded beyond mid-November, there will be no way to launch new crews before the current residents are supposed to leave.

A Russian supply ship was destroyed during liftoff last week. The rocket is similar to what's used to launch astronauts.

Three of the six space station astronauts, meanwhile, will remain in orbit for at least an extra week. They were supposed to return to Earth on Sept. 8. And the late September launch of a fresh crew has been delayed as well.

To make it clearer: Now that the United States has ended its space shuttle program, Russian rockets are the only way to get out to the station. What NASA is worried about is that scientists maybe not be able to find what the issue with the Russian rocket is before it's time to send a new group of astronauts to the station.

Space.com reports this would not be unprecedented, nor would it be a disaster. The ISS flew solo in 2001. And NASA officials said the station — worth $100 billion — could be operated remotely.

"We know how to do this," NASA's space station program manager Mike Suffredini told Space.com. "Assuming the systems keep operating, like I've said, we can command the vehicle from the ground and operate it fine, and remain on orbit indefinitely."

Update at 1:07 p.m. ET. How Do They Get Back?

Currently there are two Soyuz spacecrafts docked at the ISS. One is scheduled to bring back three astronauts in September and another is scheduled to bring the other three back in November. The spacecrafts have to come back because they were designed to spend only 200 days in space.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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