In November 2000, some 250 miles above Earth, a capsule carrying one American and two Russians docked to the International Space Station (ISS). A hatch leading to their new living quarters swung open, and the crew members floated in and got to work. They hooked up cables and computers for easy communication with the ground. They installed life-support systems to maintain breathable air. They activated the toilet. For the next four months, the ISS was their home.
Over the years, crews came and went, sourced first from the United States and Russia, and then from Japan, Germany, Italy, France, Canada, and other countries. New pressurized modules and other hardware arrived, growing the station in size and scope. So did science experiments spanning a myriad of fields, prepared by researchers eager to learn how stuff works in zero gravity.
One thing hasn’t changed in the past 18 years: There have always been people on board. When one crew departed, another remained inside, waving through the thick glass windows as it watched the capsule descend to Earth.
This fall, that guarantee seemed to be in jeopardy.
The trouble began back on Earth, at a launch facility in Kazakhstan for ferrying people to and from the ISS. On October 11, the American astronaut Nick Hague and the Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin wriggled into a small capsule atop a rocket and blasted off into the sky. Minutes into their flight, the launch vehicle’s computers detected a malfunction in the rocket and automatically triggered abort procedures. The crew capsule was shoved away from the rocket and parachuted safely to the ground.