This past Saturday, the International Space Station's cooling system unexpectedly failed. NASA is planning two emergency spacewalks to replace the system, and all will almost certainly go well--NASA is showing nothing but the utmost confidence. But the failure raises some pretty serious long-term questions about the ISS and the country's human space program.
The problem with the planned replacement of the cooling system is that the ISS is required to have two spare cooling systems available at all times to prepare for the exact scenario that actually happened. But after installing one of the spares, that'll leave just one--and due to its immense weight and size, getting another spare up to the ISS requires a Space Shuttle launch, something NASA is not prepared to do.
It's crunch time for the ISS, and politicians like Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas are pushing for the necessary provisions to keep the ISS running. This cooling system seems like a simple enough problem--something went wrong, now figure out how to fix it, just like a million other problems that have faced the ISS. But the implications are much more complex, given the current administration's new stance on the space program.
The ISS is vital for Obama's space plans: As notes the New York Times, it's meant to foster international cooperation, ensure a laboratory for experiments, and provide a home base for commercial companies like Bigelow and SpaceX. Towards this end, the Obama administration extended the expected life of the ISS by five years, all the way to 2020--and one spare cooling system is likely not enough to make it that long.
The current Senate bill, pushed by Senator Hutchison, asks for a concrete plan to outfit the shuttle with everything it needs, which may require more than one expensive Space Shuttle trip. The bill outlines NASA policy for the next three years, and could decide the future of the ISS.
All this from a cooling system failure.