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Take The Long Way Home: Spacefarers' Journey Prolonged By Space Junk

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Many of us have had the experience of having to take a detour that turns a short commute into an hours-long slog. Well, imagine that scenario while crammed into a tiny spacecraft orbiting the earth with two other people. That's what happened this week when three men heading to the International Space Station had to take the long way to avoid space junk. NPR's Scott Neuman has more.

SCOTT NEUMAN, BYLINE: What should've taken six hours ended up being a two-day trip to the space station for the cosmonauts aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule. George Zamka, a former NASA astronaut who flew two shuttle missions, says the Russians saw something in their path that concerned them. It's not clear what it was, and they decided to play it safe.

GEORGE ZAMKA: As they were looking ahead to the maneuvers that they would have to undergo to approach the space station, they saw that there was a piece of debris.

NEUMAN: So the Russians decided to forgo a shortcut they've been using for the last couple of years and took the traditional route which meant they had to make nearly three dozen orbits. William Schonberg, a professor of aerospace engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology is an expert in space debris. He says there's been a lot of thinking about the problem of orbiting junk but no clear-cut ways to get rid of it yet.

WILLIAM SCHONBERG: We know the physics behind debris removal, but the technology just hasn't quite caught up with our knowledge in that area.

NEUMAN: Most space debris falls harmlessly back to Earth, but some of it stays up there, and, like a shredded tire on the highway, it's something to be avoided. Scott Neuman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.