Is there a way for the Space Station astronauts to get back to earth without a ship?

In an emergency requiring immediate evacuation, is there some sort of “rescue pod” on the station? If there’s no rescue pod, and no ship available, could they possibly cobble something together with spacesuits, parachutes and shipping containers that would let them get back in one piece?

No. If something goes wrong, they are, to put it in technical terms, screwed.

About their only hope is to have a surfboard and a recording of Benson Arizona .
Seriously, there are a number of unresolvable problems. The first is that they are in orbit. Stepping outside of the station doesn’t change that. Without an engine to develop the necessary delta-V, they’re just going to sit there until their orbit decays. (They will decay first.)

Then, there’s the problem of reentry. You’re descending from a great height which represents a lot of potential energy which gets manifested as hellacious velocity. The only way to dispel velocity is through atmospheric friction. The shuttle is coated with special tiles that can stand being heated to several thousand degrees. Needless to say, your standard spacesuit is not. Is there any reentry trajectory that’s so gradual that it doesn’t involve burning up? I doubt it, or NASA would be using it.

So basically, if there’s an accident in space, the astronaut’s suffocated, dessicated body is going to provide a nice light show at some point, but it won’t get down in one piece.

Of course, they do have the spacecraft they came up in. If the supply ship rendezvous mission currently under way fails, the two astronauts in the station will have to return to Earth in it, since they are so low on supplies.

I always thought it was admirable of the Russians to have worked on the supply end of the effort.

In a related note, I heard within the past week that Boeing successfully launched a large, modified, Delta rocket prototype that will probably become the next workhorse crewed launch vehicle for NASA. Here’s a link to a Boeing release, although they don’t mention the crewed flight possibilities.

The ISS most definitely does have a Soyuz ship for just that purpose, so they aren’t exactly entirely “screwed.” But abandoning the station in that manner might mean we’d never get it back due to some complications with maintaining it without a crew for a period of months.

Oh well, it’s pretty much a worhtless tin-can floating in LEO for no reason right now. Who cares if it goes down?

Yep, this is it. A permanently docked Soyuz is performing the escape pod role at present, which as a consequence drastically limits the number of crew that can be on the ISS at any one time (three, tops). NASA were working on the X-38 ([shameless self-aggrandisement]which I worked on briefly as a summer job[/ssa]), a prototype for a seven-person crew return vehicle that looked like a cute dumpy mini-shuttle with tucked up wings, but it got cancelled. Oddly, the project for the CRV itself was cancelled considerably before the X-38 itself was.

And that, in a ludicrously over-simplified nutshell, is why the ISS is almost completely pointless at the moment. Shame, really.

Great pic!
Does NASA just call up the USAF, “Hey we need a B-52 this afternoon.”?

They have one full time at Edwards for research/testing.

As for the ISS, yes, indeed a Soyuz-TMA ferry spacecraft is used as “lifeboat”; IIRC, at some point in the development they briefly flirted with the idea of an actual dedicated lifeboat-only variant, but they figured they might as well go with just an upgraded version of the old workhorse. And the plan was that the full-on Space Station, primarily maintained and resupplied by the Shuttles, would have enough docking ports so 2 Soyuz could be available simultaneously (still a kludge). The scaled-down/under-construction station would have run a-la-MIR on a 3-person cadre crew, supplemented with an extra Soyuzful or Shuttleful for a few days to a couple of weeks at a time for a particular assembly or experiment(*); ever since the Columbia wreck it has held to a 2-person “subsistence” crew, since the station is dependent on regular human servicing just to run.

(*The Soyuz of course does not have infinite “shelf life” even in space, so in the original set-up there would have been Soyuz flights one of whose missions would be to replace, not the crew, but the spacecraft. This was one of the elements behind the Russian idea of a “space tourist” scheme to get some desperately needed hard cash)

NASA’s looked at a number of ways to get astronauts home from space stations since the 1960s (my favorite is the MOOSE) and has recently talked about reviving one from the Apollo era for use on the ISS.

[nitpicky hijack]Air compression, not friction, causes the heat.[/nitpicky hijack]

Can you elaborate on the distinction?

Well, I’m certainly willing to believe that air compression accounts for a lot of it, but there must be some frictional component? If I’m interpreting this discussion correctly, a lot of it depends on the geometry of the reentry vehicle and the current speed. Compression generates a lot of heat and plasma, but the laminar flow directs it mostly around the reentry vehicle. But when the flow becomes turbulent, you get a lot of frictional heating as well.

Either way, without a ship, you do get cooked with gas...

By the way, if people would pretend that I knew that there was always a Soyuz docked at the ISS and that my discussion above was solely addressing the “could they get down without a ship” part of the question, I’d be most appreciative…

Well, as you know from physics class, the volume, pressure, and temperature of a gas are all related by the ideal gas law. Well, when you drop something from orbit, it effectively acts as a piston, rapidly compressing the air in front of it. (And, I would guess, that pressurized air acts as a shockwave, compressing air in front of it in turn.) One result is that air gets really hot. I suppose you could think of this as the friction of the air molecules with other air molecules, as opposed to the friction of the air molecules against material of the rentering object.

It’s not just the potential energy that gets converted to velocity. The ISS (and everything else up there) is already at a very high orbital velocity. It’s losing that initial kinetic energy that’s the main problem.

We covered it some here:

That X-38 looks very much like the ship that crashed with Steve Austin aboard.

One last detail that I don’t think was covered when the initial misinformation was corrected is that the Soyuz capsule is rotated out with each manned trip. When the next crew arrives at the ISS, the new capsule stays in space and the departing crew takes the old one down.

As Finagle does point out though, without the Soyuz they would be well and truly screwed.

That makes sense, because they used footage from an actual lifting-body test flight for that crash. Chances are there will be similarities between the original and final result (aside from, you know, the crashing part…).

Didn’t one of those go through a wormhole and end up on some ship with a muppet and a smokin’ hot albino chick?

I remember seeing an interview with the pilot of the lifting body ‘plane’ that crashed. The guy did survive but was seriously messed up. IIRC, the only long term problem was the loss of an eye. Not bad when you consider the violence of the crash.

NASA basically dusted off the design of the dynasoar (which is the ship used in the $6 Million Man opening) for the X-38. The data gathered by the dynasoar was used by NASA in designing the shuttle. Additionally, the dynasoar was designed by one Alex Tremulis, who is most known for designing the Tucker 48.