WASHINGTON - The two astronauts aboard the International Space Station are cutting their consumption of food as supplies are running shorter than expected before the planned arrival of a Russian supply ship Christmas Day.
If there is a problem with the launch or docking of the unmanned Progress spacecraft, NASA officials said yesterday, they're prepared to order that the station be evacuated, because the crew would have only enough food for seven to 14 days.
"With both food and water, we'd be in a situation where we'd probably have to send the crew home," said program manager Bill Gerstenmaier. "We don't have much margin beyond the Progress docking."
If the crew were to come home - in a Soyuz spacecraft now at the station - it would be the first time in more than four years that the station was empty for more than a few hours.
American Leroy Chiao and Russian Salizhan Sharipov have been told to cut their caloric intake by 5 percent to 10 percent, said Sean Roden, the flight surgeon for the mission. The two had been consuming about 3,000 calories per day, he said.
Station managers prefer to have about 45 days' worth of food and water in reserve at all times on board the orbiting outpost. But Chiao and Sharipov began eating the food reserve in mid-November, earlier than officials had predicted.
Gerstenmaier said officials knew that supplies would be tight for this crew, especially after the planned Progress launch slipped from late November to Dec. 23. But supplies have dwindled faster than expected, he said, and the program will review the way it projects the consumption of food and water.
Keeping the station stocked with food, water, oxygen and spare parts has been a struggle since the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in February 2003, which grounded the shuttle fleet. The three-person crew was reduced to two - rotating every six months - and Progress ships resupply the station about four times a year.
Without the shuttle, the Progress and Soyuz craft used to ferry astronauts back and forth have to carry all the supplies to the station. Space for food and water has occasionally been sacrificed to make room for spare parts.
If Chiao and Sharipov have to come home early, there's no plan yet for when a new crew would go up, Gerstenmaier said. The next crew is scheduled to fly to the station in April.
The Progress ship is scheduled to launch from Kazakhstan two days before its Christmas Day docking.
There has never been a problem with the docking of a Progress craft with the present station, though one hit the old Russian space station Mir in June 1997, during a test of an automated docking system.
While leaving the station unattended is obviously not ideal, Gerstenmaier said, the safety of the crew is paramount. He said he doesn't feel the program is in a bind.
"This Progress is critical, no question about that," he said. "But not any more critical than other Progress in the past."
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