Space station crew makes do with 3 tons of food, supplies
By Jeordan Legon
(CNN) -- Living 250 miles above Earth for the past two months, the international space station astronauts waited for word on their fate Monday once it became clear that their March return was on hold.
With all shuttle flights grounded until the cause of the Columbia tragedy could be found, the two Americans and one Russian living in space will have to make the most of nearly three tons of water, food, oxygen and fuel expected to arrive at the station Tuesday aboard an unmanned Russian cargo booster. The supplies could keep the astronauts going until the end of June, NASA officials said.
In the meantime, the United States, Russia and the 14 countries committed to building the $95 billion station wrestled with how to get the astronauts back and whether to continue sending humans to live there. The floating structure has been saddled with billions in cost overruns and controversy from the start.
"It's sort of a house of cards in the sense that all of the hopes for human space flight have been pinned on that station," said space author Andrew Chaikin. "And if they can't complete it, it's an enormous investment whose potential will be unrealized."
'Life boat' docked to station
If things ever got really bad, officials said, the astronauts could always come back aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket "life boat" that is attached to the station.
A key concern, however, is the health of Russian flight engineer Nikolai Budarin, 49, who experienced a cardiac abnormality shortly after taking off in November and missed a space walk last month. He is joined in space by two Americans, station commander Ken Bowersox and flight engineer Donald Pettit, who are getting regular updates of the situation back on Earth.
"They committed themselves to stay up there as long as was needed to get the job done," said Bill Readdy, NASA's associate administrator of space flight.
"The program is making every effort to ensure that the crew on orbit has all that they need to continually man the space station," added Bob Cabana, director of flight crew operations at Johnson Space Center, who was one of the first humans aboard the station. "Right now, there's absolutely no concern for any of their consumables on board."
Taking the lead
If they can round up necessary funds, some Russian officials see this as an opportunity for their beleaguered space program to take the lead from the United States. Though the Columbia shuttle was not set up to dock at the station, five space shuttle flights were expected to deliver 40 tons of equipment to the orbiting human outpost this year.
The "tragedy will have a big influence on the future of the International Space Station," Cosmonaut Yuri Usachev told Russian TVS television. "Most likely, for a certain amount of time the emphasis will shift to Russian systems for delivery of cargo and crews."
Yet the Russian rockets can only carry three people and about 2.5 tons of supplies, compared to seven-member crews and 25 tons or more of cargo that fit into the shuttle. The shuttle's three engines also make the trip in less time and at less cost than the Russian ships, which are not reusable.
It takes about two years to build a Soyuz passenger capsule and somewhat less to build a Russian Progress cargo ship.
Space tourism cancelled
Complicating matters even more, Russian officials cancelled plans to send more crews or tourists into space while NASA conducts its investigation. Traditionally, U.S. shuttles have carried long-term crews to the station, while Soyuz craft have ferried visiting crews and emergency escape rockets.
"We're losing a significant amount of money," said Russian space agency spokesman Sergey Gorbunov. "We're losing approximately several tens of millions of dollars but at least the space tourist program is not closing down forever. It is being temporarily suspended until the time till the shuttle difficulties are over."
The bigger question is whether the U.S. will remain committed to send people into space or let the partially built space station float in limbo, analysts say. The station drops 1 1/2 miles a week from its orbit and it needs the shuttle to periodically haul it into its original position in order to keep it in space.
Making the case for robots
But the space station doesn't need to be reboosted this calendar year, NASA administrator Michael C. Kostelnik said.
And there's no mandate that humans must leave Earth to adjust the station's orbit. Some scientists argue there's a bigger benefit in unmanned flights using robots because they're less expensive and less dangerous.
"You can do a lot with robots," said space policy analyst Nick Fuhrman. "You can read the soil. You can understand the atmosphere of any planetary body."
Others believe the space station is important for medical and technological research, and possibly as a first step to a lunar base -- even a manned mission to Mars.
Advocates also see political and diplomatic payoffs -- building bridges with other countries involved in funding the station. In the end, experts say the debate over the future of manned space flight will involve big science, big money, and some of humankind's biggest dreams.
"I don't think we want to leave it unmanned because we're exploring," said NASA's Cabana. "We're doing science. We have a mission. We're up there to do what we set out to do. ... It just wouldn't be right to quit."
CNN's Charles Feldman contributed to this report.