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NASA Announces Plan to Replace International Space Station Crew

By Nick Anderson

NASA announced plans Thursday to bring three astronauts on the international space station home in a Russian vehicle by early May and replace them with a bare-bones crew of two for up to two years while the space shuttle fleet remains grounded following the Columbia disaster.

But NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe warned Congress that the space agency and its international partners are prepared to evacuate the $100-billion orbiting station, at least temporarily, if adequate water and other critical supplies cannot be maintained.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials at Johnson Space Center in Houston said the construction of the space station, which is little more than half-built, has come to an abrupt halt. The space shuttles are a critical supplier of personnel, supplies and parts to the space station, so the space station’s scheduled completion date of 2006 will be pushed back, said NASA spokesman Rob Navias.

In his starkest evaluation yet of the peril facing the station since the Columbia disintegrated on Feb. 1, O’Keefe said if an unmanned resupply mission scheduled for June fails to reach the station, officials will likely recommend that astronauts on it “dim the lights and come home.”

While supply missions with Russian Progress craft have been considered relatively routine, O’Keefe stressed the high stakes involved repeatedly in his testimony. O’Keefe told lawmakers that the station could probably operate for six months to a year without a crew, “assuming no other unforeseen circumstances.”

After that, NASA officials said Thursday, the station would not have enough propellant to keep it in its proper orbit path. The space station falls more than 600 feet each day because of gravity and often relies on the space shuttle’s powerful thrusters to push it back up.