Something goes bad on Earth, ISS is cut from any kind of supply and the escape pods can't be used. If there are 2 people on board at that time, how long can they survive there? Did someone write a protocol for this type of situation?

  • 10
    $\begingroup$ The ISS crew is since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in groups of three, because that many fit into the Soyuz-TMA. Any specific reason why you'd be asking for a crew of two? $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    May 25, 2014 at 13:58
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @TildalWave I might use this info and need only 2 characters. I don't mind if the answer is about a 3 crew, especially if it is an official document. $\endgroup$
    – symbiotech
    May 25, 2014 at 21:13

3 Answers 3


The longevity of the crew in terms of water and air recycling, as far as I know, is the easy part. The true test is the caloric intake of the two inhabitants and the longevity of the ISS itself.

The largest issues are:

  • Food & water - there will be a limited supply for the inhabitants and once the food and water are used up (water is also used to generate oxygen via electrolysis) there is no way to get more, assuming your dire situation continues with the Earth. This aspect depends on how much food and water is/was stocked at the time of the crisis and how well the two ration these resources.

  • Orbit - perhaps the largest issue hindering long term survival in the ISS would be that the space station is constantly losing altitude. The orbital path of the space station is roughly 370 km (average between min and max altitude ranges) and loses roughly 100 m of altitude per day. Currently the space station is "boosted" back up to a higher orbit periodically by the Soyuz and the Zvezda module's 2 main engines (formerly by the Space Shuttle when it was still in service). Without those constant visits and the ability of the Zvezda module, it is only a matter of time before the ISS will de-orbit itself.

Possible solution to the Orbit issue: NASA signed a deal with Ad Astra to test out the VASIMR (basically a electromagnetic thruster) which could make boosting the space station easier and cheaper, but that is not slated to join the ISS until 2015.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks @TildalWave. In the documentary Building the International Space Station they explain the process of recycling water and making O2 (via humidity condensate and urine collection/processing). They document the waste water recovery of the ISS system to be 94%. I assumed two variables to be true: 1. food was more finite; so it would run out before water. 2. that there would be existing water from previous inhabitants of the ISS. Both downgraded water on the priorities list for me. Were these incorrect? $\endgroup$
    – Alexinawe
    May 31, 2014 at 0:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ No, I think that's correct. The water onboard the ISS is however also a consumable, so that 94% (I believe that percentage is by now much improved actually) only applies for the ECLSS (Regenerative Environmental Control and Life Support System), but doesn't include that potable water from the two segments can't be mixed, that it is also used to produce breathable oxygen, and some recycled back into the ECLSS loop as a Sabatier reaction byproduct on removing carbon dioxyde from the breathable air. $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    May 31, 2014 at 0:56
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ And, unlike on the Space Shuttle where it was used for fuel cells to generate electricity, the hydrogen from the electrolysis is vented overboard the ISS, so even if the whole oxygen part was 100% recyclable, you can't make water back from it. ;) Anyway, I thought it's worth at least mentioning water as well, and since I was editing it, I added that in. Feel free to edit it out or expand on it (you can reuse these comments and flag them as obsolete when you consider they're no longer needed). And welcome to Space Exploration! $\endgroup$
    – TildalWave
    May 31, 2014 at 1:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What? No CO2 cracker? $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Oct 31, 2016 at 20:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Joshua: No. Scrubbers, yes, but no CO2 cracker; these are too early into development yet, and their primary failure mode is releasing carbon monoxide along with oxygen, so you really want to make them fault-proof before employing them. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Feb 17, 2017 at 14:44

The state of supplies on the ISS changes over time. Right at the end of the Shuttle era, they stockpiled lots of hardware, clothes, food and water supplies. But most specifically they made sure that large hardware components, that were replaceable, were left on station, since the Shuttle was uniquely qualified to carry them.

Over time, they have drawn down that reserve, and then replenish parts of it via Dragon, Progress, Cygnus, ATV, and HTV launches.

The current state of supplies thus fluctuates over time.

Water is an interesting consumable. The Shuttle which used fuel cells for power, would produce excess water while on station, and they would spend much of the flight transferring the water. With the absence of the shuttle visiting the station, more water needs to be brought on cargo flights to cover that lack.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Needs some clarification based on actual flight rules and the consumable in shortest supply. $\endgroup$ May 25, 2014 at 14:00

We've seen several failures of reupply missions. When a Progress launch failed on 28 April 2015, this is what NASA said:

In a presentation to a NASA Advisory Council panel here April 8, NASA officials said food supplies on the ISS would reach a threshold called “reserve level” on July 24, and go to zero on Sept. 5. That assumed that the station received no more supplies beyond a SpaceX Dragon cargo mission launched to the station in April.

The other major limiting consumable is a solid waste container known by the Russian acronym KTO. Without additional cargo missions beyond the Dragon flight, KTO supplies would reach the reserve level July 20 and be exhausted on Sept. 2. Other consumables, including water, would not reach reserve levels until later in the year or early 2016.

This was with 6 crew on board for most of the time, reducing to 3 for about a month in June-July. Rounding up to 6 people for 4 months, should be enough for 2 people for 1 year.

After another failure (Antares Orb-3, on Oct 28, 2014), NASA indicated the station had about 6 months of supplies left.

So NASA has a pretty good idea of supply levels at all times, and has planned for the failure of resupply missions.

Survival of the ISS in a doomsday scenario is rather a different situation, though. I'm having a hard time imagining a scenario that would render Earth uninhabitable for 1 year, and safe after that. I.e. if the entire Earth becomes uninhabitable, it'll stay that way for much longer.

Neal Stephenson's novel Seveneves uses the ISS as a lifeboat in such a scenario. But in his story, there's enough advance warning to make the ISS livable for as long as it needs to be (not being more specific to avoid spoilers).


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.