An unmanned Russian spacecraft delivered badly-needed supplies to the International Space Station late Saturday, enabling the crew to cancel plans to abandon the station for lack of food.
The supply ship, named Progress, docked at the station on Christmas night with two-and-a-half tons of fuel, oxygen, water, equipment, spare parts, holiday presents from the crewmembers' families, and most important, food from the Russian and U.S. space agencies.
The docking was welcome because astronaut Leroy Chiao and cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov had been eating five to 10 percent fewer calories per day after an audit early this month found the food inventory dangerously low. This has never happened before in the uninterrupted four-year occupation of the outpost.
The U.S. space agency NASA says the shortage was the result of a combination of factors, including the unavailability of the U.S. space shuttle as it undergoes safety modifications following the loss of the orbiter Columbia early last year. In addition, this supply craft flew one month later than originally scheduled, the two previous Russian cargo craft carried less than the usual amount of food stocks because they had to bring up
critical parts for exercise gear and the oxygen generator, and the previous crew reportedly ate too much.
NASA spokesman Rob Navias said the new supply of meals is more than enough. "The 69 containers of food will provide some 112 days of food supplies for the crew on board the International Space Station, roughly twice as much as would be required until the next arrival of Progress in early March," he said.
If the Russian supply rocket had failed its present mission, plans were for the two crewmen to abandon the station by December 30 and return to Earth in the Soyuz capsule that ferried them up in October.
NASA officials say an independent team is investigating why the food inventory was tracked so poorly.