Commercial Crew Spacecraft Will Offer a Quick Escape from Station

By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

New, American-made spacecraft flying to the International Space Station will play a big role in bringing resident crews back home to Earth, but their missions also include the ability to provide the orbiting laboratory with a temporary shelter in case of an emergency in space, or even a safe ride back to Earth with short notice.

The scenarios that would call for the spacecraft to operate as space-borne lifeboats have not occurred on the International Space Station before, but mission planners have long made sure they are prepared. An electrical issue or ammonia leak on the space station could call for astronauts to shelter inside a Commercial Crew Program spacecraft long enough to correct the problem.

A medical emergency requiring surgery on an astronaut would be a case demanding immediate evacuation from orbit to Earth, something the spacecraft supporting NASA missions would be equipped to handle. The Soyuz spacecraft handle the lifeboat capability needs for the station’s current crews.

The need for a quick departure is more than a luxury for the space station. Every person on the orbiting complex has a specific emergency seat assigned throughout their mission that they have to get to if the need arises. Because there are limits to how many seats are available at a time, there also is a limit to how many residents can live and work there.

What does it mean for a spacecraft to be capable of serving as a lifeboat? As with all the needs for the new spacecraft, NASA outlined a list of requirements for designers to meet. For the most part, it means the spacecraft can be powered on quickly while docked to the station, even if it has been dormant for weeks or a couple of months. From air circulation fans to life support systems to thrusters, the spacecraft’s systems will be designed to engage in minutes.

“Some systems will take longer to bring online, but the idea is to have spacecraft that astronauts can get into quickly for survival and then use to pull away from the station and come home if that is needed,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “Defining exactly what that means, and what the companies can do to make it real was the hard part. That’s why we took a teamwork approach from the start and why we’ve treated this as a partnership.”

Boeing and SpaceX, each working on their own crew-capable spacecraft — the CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon, respectively — are testing their systems thoroughly on Earth before they undergo evaluation in orbit without a crew aboard, and then on a short mission with astronauts. Their performances in space – without an actual emergency – are to be considered carefully before NASA certifies the companies to fly operational missions, which could see a spacecraft docked to the station for months at a time.


  • Robert G. Oler

    this is ridiculous…

  • JamesG

    Why? Matching the capabilities of the Soyuz has been a criteria from the beginning.

  • Robert G. Oler

    well I dont think 1) the bailout scenario is a realistic event to even plan for….and 2) I dont think that the “astronaut’ needs surgery so we have to hurry up and go makes a lot of sense either

    first none is really possible in anything but low earth orbit…and second we pay these people a lot of money and if the vehicle gets in trouble up there they need to stand and fight to save it. even if that cost them

    Sailors on a Navy ship would be expected to do that

  • JamesG

    Navy ships have lifeboats and PFDs for every crew member.

    Luckily the ISS is in LEO.

    Our astronauts make civil service pay, which is pretty good, but not “a lot”.

    The ISS is only one impact or system failure away from uninhabitable.

    This is NASA and the ESA we are talking about, there has to be a contingency for everything so no one can get blamed if something goes wrong.

  • Robert G. Oler

    those are used only when the ship sinks…every crewmen on a ship is expendable to save the ship. Sailors have died since WW2 to keep their ship afloat

    NASA strows make more then any enlisted sailor on a ship

    they have to have plans to “retreat” to a safe place and regroup…and then save the station.

  • JamesG

    Yes, they do. The spacecraft attached to the station which have their own independent life support systems.

    The ISS getting holed through and through is pretty much “sunk”. The ISS is not a warship. It is an expensive, but expendable, scientific facility.

  • Mark Howard

    This sounds like the X-38 program all over again. Does this mean NASA is thinking of reopening the program? Or are they fishing for a commercial vendor to pick up where they left off? Curious.

  • JamesG

    It’s been rolled into CC since day one. I think they just want it to perform the same job that the Soyuz do to reduce reliance on them. There is no reason why they can’t since they don’t have the issues the orbiters did (limited fuel cells).

  • windbourne

    first off, astronauts from the military are all officers, not enlisted. So comparing there is wrong.
    Secondly, several astronauts went back to the military because it paid more and they need the money.
    third, there is little doubt that the astronauts will want to do everything possible to save their work (i.e. the ISS), BUT, NASA/ESA will likely try to override and get them back home. After all, if ISS saved, but life lost, then many will scream that it is a waste of money to send humans because it is too dangerous.

    Fourth, that later is a really good reason why we need private space stations, and when going after the moon/mars, it needs to be private space based.

  • windbourne

    once SX and Boeing have their launch vehicles working next year, would it be possible to increase the numbers at ISS? Those carry 7/6, respectively. It seems like if the space community will add another habitat or 2, that SX/Boeing can then use the extra seats for those habitats.
    And would this not make more sense to do before sending something to the moon?
    I would think that having a habitat attached to the ISS to be fitted out and fully tested for 1-2 years would make a lot more sense than simply sending a stations to the moon directly.

  • publiusr

    If I could see one–just one–scaled up Dream Chaser atop Falcon Heavy–to be brought to ISS–I’d be happy. And this coming from someone who really doesn’t like top mount spaceplanes. Falcon is rugged enough to take it. Delta-IV? Who can say.

  • Richard Malcolm

    The plan is to increase ISS crew size up to 7 once regular Commercial Crew flights begin, actually.

  • Richard Malcolm

    You’re talking about combat ships, not a research station. That kind of sacrifice is not called for here.

    ISS is also a different threat matrix. Human existence is far more precarious there. A Navy sailor doesn’t die just because something knocks a hole in the superstructure, or takes out a screw.

  • JamesG

    Why would SX, or NASA, for that matter support a competitor when the two leading candidates can do the specified job just fine, better in fact.

    Dream Chaser would be a good choice if there were daily flights to the ISS or any other stations. There it’s touted strengths, cross-range, quick reusablity, and rapid turn around would off set its weaknesses, high dry weight, exposed TPS, etc.

    But sadly, we’re still not ready for the ol’ X-38.

  • publiusr

    One can hope–for a life-boat if nothing else. Falcon Heavy would do HL-42

  • windbourne

    Yeah, but that is due to iss life support. IOW it was designed for 7 sustained.

    But, if iss adds 1-2 new units that are habitats, then it should be possible to add more, such as taking them to say 10, or 13.