Nasa is working with private American companies to prime spacecraft for use as escape pods, to return to Earth quickly in case of a crisis. There has been no emergency situations on the International Space Station (ISS) so far, but the US space agency is preparing for any possible eventuality. Nasa astronauts are thoroughly tested to ensure their good health over the duration of a mission, but in the case of a medical emergency, there needs to be a vehicle for rapid evacuation.

Currently, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft does double duty as an escape vehicle. Every astronaut on board has a seat reserved, which limits the number of crew working at the ISS at any point of time. Nasa is working closely with Boeing and SpaceX for getting their spacecraft ready to use as lifeboats for the ISS. The CST-100 Starliner from Boeing and the Crew Dragon from SpaceX are being thoroughly tested on the ground. The critical functionality for use as a lifeboat is that all the systems required for a safe flight back should be up and running in short notice. The air circulation fans, the thrusters and the life support systems have to engage within minutes.

Kathy Lueders, manager of Nasa’s Commercial Crew Program says “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. 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.”

The spacecraft are also being prepared to be used as a temporary safe harbour, where the crew can sit it out while a problem gets fixed. Potential scenarios that require such a module to temporarily house the crew include an ammonia leak and failure in the electrical systems of the ISS. After the ground based testing, the spacecraft will be tested in orbit sans crew, and only then will the spacecraft be certified by Nasa for operational missions. The spacecraft could be docked to the ISS for months at a time.

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