"The station itself can be flown uncrewed from Mission Control," Gerstenmaier said.
Of course, NASA and its international partners would much prefer to keep the orbiting lab fully staffed. Crew members on board can fix maintenance or servicing issues that crop up, for example, which can't be done from the ground.
And with more crew members aboard the station, more scientific research can get done. On a fully de-staffed station, some experiments could go on as before, such as the recently installed $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which is hunting dark matter, antimatter and cosmic rays.
But many other projects would have to be dropped, or at least postponed, without astronauts on board to conduct them. And NASA hopes it doesn't come to that, officials have said.
"If the ISS needed to be de-crewed, the largest impact would obviously be to crew-tended research," Gerstenmaier said.
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