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Tragedy can maroon space station crew

Moscow, Feb. 3 (Reuters): The US shuttle disaster could jeopardise the $95 billion International Space Station and maroon the astronauts aboard the outpost until Russia sends up a replacement crew, Russian experts said today.

The three men aboard the station — US station commander Ken Bowersox, flight engineer Donald Pettit and Russian flight engineer Nikolai Budarin —were due to be relieved in March.

But Nasa’s grounding of three remaining shuttles means Atlantis, due to carry the replacement crew, cannot do the job.

This leaves the current team, on board since November, dependent on the dispatch of a Russian capsule or on the ISS “lifeboat”.

“There is no question of leaving them out in space with no food or fuel. That will not happen,” Yuri Grigoryev, deputy head of the RKK Energia corporation, which builds the Soyuz capsules.

The next flight of a Soyuz, Russia's only manned capsule which carries crew and equipment to the ISS, is due in April.

Grigoryev said the crew could leave, in the worst instance, aboard the “lifeboat” capsule, a Soyuz now docked to the ISS. “They can, of course, physically stay out in space that long. But psychologically it will be tough — they were preparing to return.”

Of prime concern is veteran Budarin, 49, who was diagnosed with cardiac abnormality after blasting off for the ISS and last month missed a spacewalk. The April flight was due to take up a crew for a short visit and replace the ISS lifeboat.

Other specialists said the grounding order could lead to the station’s operations being frozen indefinitely.

“In my opinion, the ISS will have to be frozen, maybe for a year, maybe more,” said Igor Marinin, editor of the specialised publication Novosti Kosmonavtiki. Columbia disintegrated on Saturday, killing its seven-strong crew in the first US space catastrophe since Challenger exploded in 1986.

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