If a crew member has a serious injury or illness, he or she will need to get back to Earth as soon as possible. The whole crew of the space station might have to evacuate in the case of a serious fire, or some other life-threatening damage to the station. So there has to be a way to escape the station quickly. A Soyuz capsule will always be docked at the ISS, capable of carrying two people in a medical emergency, or three people in other emergencies. A crew will take a fresh Soyuz capsule to the station every six months.

NASA is designing and building a crew-return vehicle (CRV), called the X-38, for emergency use. The X-38 will be capable of transporting seven people to the surface.

Photo courtesy NASA
Artist's rendering of the X-38 leaving the ISS.

Photo courtesy NASA
X-38 in free flight test.

The X-38 will weigh 20,000 pounds (9,072 kg). Its design is a lifting body style -- that is, the shape of the body, instead of wings, generates lift -- with a de-orbit engine. This engine weighs 95,000 pounds (43,000 kg), and can only slow the craft down for re-entry. The X-38 also has a parafoil parachute and landing skids. The craft will fire its de-orbit engine and throw its engine away once the fuel is gone. When the X-38 re-enters the atmosphere, it will be protected from the heat of re-entry by ceramic tiles, like the space shuttle. Once through the atmosphere, the X-38 will glide toward its landing site, use its parachute to slow down and steer, and touchdown on its skid. While the X-38 is designed to fly automatically, it can also be flown manually.

Next Page >>