The international space station (ISS) is humanity’s most advanced engineering project. The ISS represents a 15-year multinational effort and an investment of roughly $100 billion. Given the lack of replacement modules and the retirement of the only vehicle capable of building it, the ISS is humanity’s most valuable and irreplaceable asset.

Since the station was just completed, it’s surprising that some NASA officials have said that they may evacuate the entire ISS crew — knowing that operating ISS without a crew greatly increases the risk of losing the station.

This procedure would be appropriate if ISS were on fire, if it had an irreparable leak, or if all crew consumables had been exhausted. Since none of these catastrophes has happened and ISS has a year’s worth of consumables aboard, you might ask why anyone would consider risking the ISS by removing the crew. The answer pertains to the Russian Soyuz vehicle that serves as an emergency lifeboat [“Station Crew Size To Be Reduced Following Soyuz Failure,” Sept. 5, page 6]. The Russians have certified the Soyuz to be flight capable for a certain period, but beyond that point there are increasing risks that some Soyuz systems might not function properly, endangering astronauts during their return to Earth.

The Russian rockets and their Soyuz vehicles have a long history of being quite reliable. I believe that they will successfully return to flight in time and that the ISS will remain occupied. Indeed, there are even other options that might be pursued under emergency conditions, including Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Dragon spacecraft.

The ISS is one large step for man, and one that is certainly worth taking some risks to safeguard. In our 11-year history of ISS we’ve never needed to perform an evacuation, but the need could occur in the future. Astronaut safety certainly must be given priority, but as part of a larger picture. To do otherwise would mean the permanent termination of human spaceflight.

Humanity’s destiny is to spread throughout our solar system. There will be risks ahead, and we must be willing to make well-reasoned judgments as to which risks to take if we are to build a bright future for our children. Many military pilots have taken a risk to bring their planes home when the safer move would have been to “punch out.” The “Right Stuff” is encoded within the DNA of space station crew members Mike Fossum, Satoshi Furukawa and Sergei Volkov. I believe that given a choice, they would stay at their post.

Jay Wittner
Executive Director,
Space Literacy Foundation
, Fla.