The United States government and commercial spaceflight providers have no plans in place to conduct a timely rescue of a crew from a distressed spacecraft in low Earth orbit, or anywhere else in space.

Without rescue plans in place, today’s space travelers will journey at their own risk.

The present posture, of not planning for in-space rescue and not having responsive in-space rescue capabilities, needs to be addressed before the need for a rescue materializes. The U. S. has the wherewithal to establish space rescue capabilities and to do so with a sense of urgency.

A new report — The In-space Rescue Capability Gap — seeks to raise awareness of the need to revisit space rescue policies and put in place measures to address this issue.

Author of the report, Grant Cates, is a senior project leader for The Aerospace Corporation’s Space Architecture Department.

USS Squalus and Diving Bell by John Groth/
Naval History and Heritage Command

Historical analogs

Issued by the corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy and the organization’s Space Safety Institute, Cates uses historical analogs, such as the ancient maritime explorers that embarked upon epic journeys with multiple ships, effective submarine rescue operations, and the rich history of human spaceflight.

Potential solutions to improve safety during space travel are identified and policy options are discussed in the paper.

The paper offers a series of conclusions:

  • The United States has no present capability or policy for conducting in-space rescues. This despite:
  • Having studied space escape and rescue systems since 1959.
  • Having demonstrated a self-rescue capability during the aborted Apollo 13 mission.
  • Having put in place rescue capabilities for the Skylab mission.
  • Experiencing the hard-learned revelation of the importance of in-space rescue options after the loss of space shuttle Columbia and her 7-person crew.

Columbia catastrophe

On February 1, 2003, Columbia broke up as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere, killing all onboard, with NASA suspending shuttle mission for more than two years as it looked into causes of the catastrophe.

Credit: NASA

Indeed, the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that if NASA had recognized the damage at the beginning of the mission, then a rescue by using the next space shuttle due for launch, Atlantis, would have been feasible.

That rescue would have entailed maneuvering Atlantis next to Columbia and then transferring the crewmembers via individual spacewalks. “This rescue was considered challenging but feasible,” as noted in the Columbia Accident Investigation board report volume 1.

First step

“A space rescue capability is likely to be highly synergistic with the long-sought-after capability of having responsive launch capability,” Cates writes. “Perhaps a good first step to achieve both would be for the U.S. Congress to establish a policy such as: “It should be the policy of the United States to develop and put in place rapid launch-on-need capability to support: timely rescue of astronauts in cis-lunar space; rapid reconstitution of nationally important space assets; and the ability to put in place new space capabilities in response to emerging threats in near real time.”

Credit: dearMoon

Imagine the public outcry, Cates adds, that could arise if an Inspiration4, Axiom, dearMoon or a similar mission were stranded in low Earth orbit or cislunar space by a disabled spacecraft.

Inspiration4 is the world’s first all-civilian mission to orbit. The mission will be commanded by Jared Isaacman, the 38-year-old founder and Chief Executive Officer of Shift4 Payments and an accomplished pilot and adventurer.

Axiom’s four-person Ax-1 crew is to fly to the International Space Station.

The dearMoon project is a lunar tourism mission and art project conceived and financed by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa.

To read the full report — The In-space Rescue Capability Gap – go to:

One Response to “Report Flags Space Rescue Concerns”

  • Trae says:

    What entity do we suppose should take up the mantle? NASA? Coast Guard? Air Force? Homeland Security/FEMA’s national SAR/PR? Dept of Commerce? Space Force? FAA? someone else? so many choices. The cost will be astronomical (pun intended); what entity should have the rose pined on them?

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