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Shuttle Tragedy Raises Questions On When Space Station Crew Can Return - 2003-02-03

The two Americans and one Russian on board the International Space Station were scheduled to return to Earth in March. But when they may return home is now uncertain, since all space shuttle flights have been grounded, while NASA investigates the cause of the Columbia shuttle disaster.

NASA says the space station crew has enough supplies to last through June.

The International Space Station has a large supply of food, water and just about everything that will allow its crew to remain in orbit for several months beyond their scheduled March return, if necessary.

"The program is making every effort to ensure that the crew in orbit has all that they need to continually man the space station. And right now, there's absolutely no concern for any of their consumables on board," said Bob Cabana, director of flight operations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Mr. Cabana says the three crew members on the space station, who have been orbiting Earth since November, have been affected by the shuttle disaster. NASA is keeping them fully informed of the investigation into what caused the Columbia tragedy and the deaths of all seven astronauts. Partial remains have now been recovered.

"They feel a little isolated. We're keeping them fully informed. They want to get through this process, and it's harder for them being detached from it in space," he said.

Day-to-day operations on board the space station should not be affected. But that could change if shuttle flights remain grounded for an extended period of time. At this stage though, space shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore sees no reason to bring the three crew members home early, or leave the space station unmanned.

"We have sufficient supplies. We are able to communicate and perform and function as planned. We are early in our investigation on the shuttle, and so it's premature for us to consider even talking about that," he said.

On Sunday, Russia launched an unmanned re-supply spacecraft loaded with more supplies for the space station.