An International Space Station computer failed Friday, just three days ahead of the launch of a private spacecraft that would carry needed supplies to the station’s crew, orbiting the Earth about 230 miles into space.
NASA is planning to go ahead with the launch anyway, but the space agency says that the astronauts on board will need to embark on a space walk to fix the broken computer equipment. But NASA says it has not yet set a schedule for when two crew members will leave the space station and walk into space.
NASA also said that if the space walk is needed, the space station crew is fully trained to carry it out. “Such a spacewalk is one of the so-called ‘Big 12’ spacewalks that station crews train to execute for the loss of a critical component on the complex,” a NASA statement said on Saturday.
The space station crew is currently safe, NASA said. The failed computer, called a “multiplexer-demultiplexer,” or MDM, controls a mobile transporter device that positions the space stations robotic arm used on the exterior of the station for repairs and other tasks.
The MDM that failed to respond to signals from the crew is a backup unit. The primary computer still works. But NASA prefers to have a backup for important tasks.
And that is the problem. The Space X cargo ship set to launch Monday has no docking mechanism of its own. The astronauts aboard will have to catch it using the robotic arm. That’s one of those important tasks that’s better performed with a backup — or “redundancy,” as NASA calls it — in place. Because without that “redundancy,” if the main computer were go on the fritz, the space station crew has no way to bring in the Space X supply ship.
“Everything works just fine with 1 of the 2 computers failed,” said NASA Flight DirectorEd Van Cise, who runs the space station mission from the ground, in a Facebook post. “2 of 2 computers failed is a really bad day — effectively can’t control anything on the truss.”
Space X is a private space flight company founded by 42-year-old billionaire technology investor Elon Musk, who made his fortune investing in such successful tech ventures as PayPal and, later, Tesla Motors.
Musk’s Space X form has a $1.6 billion contract wit NASA to stage space station resupply missions. Monday’s launch, which NASA says will go ahead as planned, will be third time that a Space X cargo ship has resupplied the International Space Station.
The Space X ship will carry food for the space station crew as well as one new space suit and replacement parts for space suits already aboard the space station.
“Things start to bunch up,” said NASA space station manager Mike Suffrendi., “We’re just trying to fly as soon as we safely can, which is what we believe we’re doing.”