NASA details space station problems

Some officials questioned safety of astronauts about to spend 200 days aboard

October 24, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NASA officials acknowledged yesterday that air, water and radiation monitors, medical devices and some other systems on the International Space Station were ailing or broken.

But in news conferences, the astronauts aboard the station and a number of space agency officials said they were confident that the station was safe for now. They said the situation was being carefully monitored and the astronauts could be evacuated quickly if necessary.

The officials included a medical officer and an environmental officer who warned NASA managers last month of possible risks to the astronauts from the faulty systems. Their concerns were reported yesterday in The Washington Post.

A fresh crew, one American and one Russian, arrived aboard a Russian spacecraft Monday for a six-month stay, along with a Spanish astronaut who will return to Earth in 10 days with the departing crew of two, who have been orbiting since April.

Dr. C. Michael Foale, the new mission commander and science officer, said in a news conference from space that he and the other orbiting astronauts were not worried about their safety.

Foale said he had been told two or three weeks ago by a flight surgeon that some medical equipment and environmental monitoring devices aboard the station were not working properly, but he added, "They made a point to tell me that they saw no reason to believe that the actual quality of the air was bad or that the water we were drinking was bad."

The warnings in the weeks leading up to the mission were expressed at meetings and in a signed dissent by the two agency scientists included in the Sept. 24 "flight readiness statement" that authorized the mission. That document and other materials were released by NASA yesterday.

The flight readiness document authorized the launching and mission, but also listed the detailed concerns of the medical and environmental teams.

The problems include breakdowns in a defibrillator and an exercise machine used by astronauts on the long missions to maintain their bone and muscle strength. Nearly all the intravenous fluid stored on the station is due to expire in early 2004. There is no alarm to warn of excessive radiation exposure.

The risks from this accumulation of small problems were amplified, the document said, by the reduction of crews to two from three astronauts and the lengthening of missions, both resulting from the grounding of the space shuttle fleet after the loss of the Columbia in February. The agency scientists who wrote that they could not approve of the launching were William A. Langdoc, chief of the NASA office that deals with environmental and living conditions for astronauts, and Dr. Nitza Cintron, NASA's chief of space medicine.

Some of the problems were described as relatively minor and some more significant, but taken together and in combination with reduced crew size and longer gaps between rotations of astronauts, they posed excessive risks, the dissenters said.

Yesterday, however, both scientists said that while they had had initial concerns in assessing the risks of the mission, they were now confident that the conditions on the station did not threaten the new occupants, who are scheduled to remain aboard for 200 days.

"There is no evidence of any imminent danger, anything that we can identify," Cintron said.

Langdoc said the complaints were carried up the chain of command as required and nothing "was hidden and not fully vetted." He said some samples of air and water would be returned to Earth for analysis with the departing astronauts.

Howard E. McCurdy, a historian at American University who has studied NASA management, said it was good that concerns about environmental monitoring aboard the station were being debated.

"This is the best way now to raise the level of concern," he said, "This issue is getting a public airing before there is a problem rather than afterward."

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