NASA stands by its astronaut after incendiary Russian claims

Enlarge / The Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft docked to the Rassvet module of the International Space Station’s Russian segment.


On Friday afternoon, NASA pushed back on personal attacks made by Russia’s state-owned news service against NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor.

“NASA astronauts, including Serena Auñón-Chancellor, are extremely well-respected, serve their country, and make invaluable contributions to the agency,” said Kathy Lueders, chief of human spaceflight for NASA. “We stand behind Serena and her professional conduct. We do not believe there is any credibility to these accusations.”

Shortly after Lueders tweeted this statement, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson concurred. “I whole-heartedly agree with Kathy’s statement,” he said. “I fully support Serena and I will always stand behind our astronauts.”

The statements of support come more than 24 hours after the Russian news service TASS, which is widely distributed and speaks with the authority of the Russian government, published new claims about Auñón-Chancellor’s behavior as an astronaut aboard the International Space Station in 2018. TASS claimed that Auñón-Chancellor had an emotional breakdown in space and then damaged a Russian spacecraft so that she could return to Earth early.

After Ars reported these claims on Thursday, NASA offered a weak statement that in no way exonerated Auñón-Chancellor. “To protect their privacy, the agency will not discuss medical information regarding crew members,” the agency said in part.

NASA rarely, if ever, criticizes Russia because the country has largely been a reliable partner on the International Space Station project. NASA officials knew that rebutting these new claims would inflame an already difficult relationship with the political leaders of Roscosmos, including with the agency’s head, Dmitry Rogozin. However, two sources told Ars that the leadership of NASA’s astronaut office was extremely frustrated by NASA’s lack of support for Auñón-Chancellor. This prompted the stronger statements that NASA released Friday.

There have long been rumors in lower-level Russian media outlets blaming US astronauts for the hole in a Soyuz spacecraft that caused the space station leak in 2018. But the TASS report was the first to name Auñón-Chancellor, to disclose a private medical condition, and then to make the incendiary claim that this condition led her to sabotage the space station.

From the beginning, NASA has known these claims were nonsensical. Back in 2018, senior NASA officials were briefed on the matter, a source who participated told Ars. The agency’s space station program, based in Houston, was able to immediately determine that pressures began falling on the space station in late August 2018. They knew the precise locations of the US astronauts before the leak occurred and at the moment it began. None of the US astronauts on the station were near the Russian segment where the Soyuz vehicle was docked. US officials shared this data with Russians to no avail.