The two astronauts on board the international space station are cutting back on food as supplies are running shorter than expected in advance of the planned arrival of a Russian...

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WASHINGTON — The two astronauts on board the international space station are cutting back on food as supplies are running shorter than expected in advance of the planned arrival of a Russian supply ship on Christmas Day.

If there is a problem with the launch or docking of the unmanned Progress spacecraft, NASA officials said yesterday they are prepared to order the station evacuated since the crew would have enough food left for only seven to 14 days.

“With both food and water, we’d be in a situation where we’d probably have to send the crew home,” station program manager Bill Gerstenmaier said. “We don’t have much margin beyond the Progress docking.”

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If the crew were to come home — in a Soyuz docked to the station — it would be the first time in more than four years the station was left empty for more than a few hours.

American Leroy Chiao and Russian Salizhan Sharipov have been told to cut 5 to 10 percent of their caloric intake, said Sean Roden, flight surgeon for the mission. The two had been eating about 3,000 calories per day, he said.

Station managers prefer to have about 45 days’ worth of food and water in reserve at all times. But Chiao and Sharipov began eating into the food reserve in mid-November, earlier than officials had predicted.

Gerstenmaier said officials knew supplies would be tight for this crew, especially after the planned Progress launch slipped from late November to Dec. 23. But supplies have dwindled more quickly than expected, he said, and the program will review the way it projects the consumption of food and water.

Keeping the station stocked with food, water, oxygen and spare parts has been a struggle since the February 2003 loss of the space shuttle Columbia, which grounded the shuttle fleet. The three-person crew was reduced to two people — rotating every six months — and Progress ships resupply the station about four times a year.

Without the shuttle, the Progress ships and the Soyuz crafts used to ferry astronauts back and forth have to bring all the supplies to the station. Space for food and water occasionally has been sacrificed to make room for spare parts.

If Chiao and Sharipov do have to come home, Gerstenmaier said there is no plan for when a new crew would go up. The next crew currently is scheduled to fly to the station in April.

There never has been a problem with the docking of a Progress on the station, although a ship did hit the old Russian space station Mir in June 1997, during a test of an automated docking system.

Gerstenmaier said that, while leaving the station unattended is obviously not an ideal situation, the safety of the crew is paramount. He also said, however, that he does not feel the program is in a bind — yet.

“This Progress is critical, no question about that,” he said. “But not any more critical than other Progress in the past.”