NASA: Ousted space station crew seeks shelter in 'lifeboat'

Three astronauts safe after piece of old rocket motor passes too close for comfort

The three astronauts on board the International Space Station today were forced to seek shelter in a "lifeboat" when space debris came hurtling dangerously close to the orbiting outpost.

Two American astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut took refuge in the Soyuz TMA-13 Capsule, which is what they would use if they needed to return to Earth, according to Josh Byerly, a NASA spokesman. They were in the capsule from 12:34 a.m. to 12:45 a.m. Eastern time today when they received an all-clear from Mission Control.

The piece of debris, which was spotted late last night by the U.S. Space Command, is a piece of an old rocket motor that was used to push a satellite higher into orbit, said Byerly. The debris came within a 2.8 mile "box" of space that NASA considers a danger zone around the space station. The piece of motor only measures a third of an inch, but Byerly said even something the size of a grain of sand could do massive damage to the space station because of the high rate of speed that debris travels in space.

"We asked the crew to get into the Soyuz," he added. "If the station was hit, that's what they'd use to get home. It's safe because that's their lifeboat. If the station decompressed, they could shut the hatch on the Soyuz and come home. You don't want to hide out on a part of the station where there's something between you and what could take you home."

NASA noted that it discovered the debris too late to maneuver the station away from its path.

Yesterday, NASA announced that a leak in the space shuttle Discovery's gaseous hydrogen vent line forced mission managers to push the launch back until March 15.

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