Did a NASA astronaut go wacky on the International Space Station and punch eight holes in a Russian space module, in a feverish attempt to get back to Earth?
An unnamed, high-ranking Russian space official is saying exactly that, according to a startling report in the country’s state media outlet, TASS.
Observers say this and another dangerous incident might have knocked the longtime partnership between NASA and Roscosmos further off its already wobbly trajectory, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported this week.
The 2018 incident on the orbiting space station reportedly involved a mysterious hole that was discovered in the hull of one of the station’s modules.
Left unchecked, the small hole would have depressurized the station in about two weeks.
Fortunately, cosmonauts were able to patch the hole with epoxy, and the Soyuz spacecraft was deemed safe to fly its crew of three back to Earth.
However, in the TASS story published on August 12, a “high-ranking official in the Russian space industry” was quoted as saying that there were in fact eight man-made holes discovered, not just one.
Senior NASA officials dismissed the allegation, saying the US space agency does not consider it credible.
Without providing evidence, the Russian official asserted that a NASA astronaut on board at the time, Serena Aunon-Chancellor, had experienced a medical problem involving blood flow that “could have provoked an acute psychological crisis” which, in turn, might have led her to seek a way to return to Earth before the mission was over.
NASA’s response to the TASS story, via a space agency statement, seemed to elicit more questions than answers regarding a major charge by a critical space station partner:
All the International Space Station partners are dedicated to mission safety and the welfare of the crew. The International Space Station partners all participate in multiple reviews prior to every major station activity to assess and ensure the safety of all crew members. The hole that was detected in late August 2018 by the space station crew was quickly sealed, restoring air-tight pressure to the station. Russian cosmonauts conducted a spacewalk that December to gather additional engineering data for Russian specialists on Earth and to look externally at the effectiveness of the internal repair. The Soyuz spacecraft was thoroughly checked and deemed safe for the crew to return to Earth, which it did, on Dec. 20, 2018.
To protect their privacy, the agency will not discuss medical information regarding crew members.
On Friday afternoon (Aug. 13), during a media teleconference about recent delays with Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, NASA’s human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders told reporters that the personal attacks against NASA astronaut and Expedition 56 flight engineer Serena Auñón-Chancellor were baseless.
“Serena is an extremely well-respected crew member who has served her country and made invaluable contributions to the agency,” Lueders told reporters. “And I stand behind Serena — we stand behind Serena and her professional conduct and I did not find this accusation credible.”
Lueders expressed those same sentiments on Twitter Friday afternoon, with NASA’s administrator, Senator Bill Nelson agreeing.
“I wholeheartedly agree with Kathy’s statement,” Nelson tweeted. “I fully support Serena and I will always stand behind our astronauts.”
Auñón-Chancellor was treated upon her return to Earth for a deep vein thrombosis, also known as a blood clot, in the jugular vein of her neck.
The TASS report implies that dealing with such a condition in space could spur her to want to leave the ISS prematurely, and therefore sabotage the spacecraft that brought her to the orbital outpost in an effort to return home ahead of schedule.
The other incident involved a newly arrived Russian module, which last month sent the ISS spinning and nearly knocked it off its orbit.
Experts and longtime space watchers held their breath, and then exhaled when the ISS was stabilized and no lasting damage was detected.
Nauka – which means “science” in Russian – is Russia’s Multipurpose Laboratory Module.
The 23-tonne module adds a laboratory, additional sleeping quarters and other capabilities to the Russian segment of ISS.
Following its July 21 launch, it reportedly encountered some propulsion problems that Russian controllers were able to resolve ahead of its planned docking with ISS.
Then, after it docked with the station, an apparent computer glitch caused the module’s engines to continue firing, causing the station to do an entire rotation.
Engineers were forced to turn on engines in two other modules at the station to prevent an uncontrolled spin, and bring the station under control.
Zebulon Scoville told the New York Times that a caution warning came soon after Nauka’s docking. It was 11:34 a.m. Houston time on July 29.
Initially, he thought that the prompt, just two lines of code, might have been a mistake. But NASA controllers quickly discovered that Nauka was doing more than firing. It was trying to pull away from the station it had docked with just moments ago.
Scoville said: At first, I was like, ‘Oh, is this a false indication?’ And then I looked up at the video monitors and saw all the ice and thruster firings. This is no kidding. A real event. So let’s get to it.”
The NASA team had no control over the Nauka module, as it can receive direct commands only from a ground station in Russia. And, in the moments after the unexpected thruster firing, the next pass over Russia was more than an hour away.
It took 45 minutes for mission controllers in Houston to get ISS back under control. They called on the seven astronauts aboard the station for help.
Led by Scoville, the ISS astronauts and NASA ground controllers worked to counteract Nauka’s thrusters. To balance the tilt, they counter-fired thrusters on the Russian module Zvezda and the Progress cargo ship.
The torque of Nauka’s thrusters would have put strain on some the structures and the change in direction would have meant that the solar panels and antennas were not pointing in the correct direction.
“You risk some things getting too warm or too cold,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s program manager for the space station.
Communications with the crew were disrupted twice — once for four minutes, then for seven minutes.
Roscosmos will lead the investigation of what went wrong with Nauka while NASA engineers are evaluating whether the stress and strain caused any damage. “Right now, we haven’t noticed any damage to the ISS,” Montalbano said.
He said the Russian controllers have sent commands to prevent any more inadvertent thruster firings.
The problem with Nauka led NASA to postpone the launching of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which was scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Friday and dock at the space station on Saturday. Launch is now scheduled for Tuesday.
The incidents come as the three-decade relationship between Moscow and Washington in the area of space exploration is increasingly under strain, stretched both by unrelated geopolitical tensions but also major transformations in how space is being explored.
Prior to the Nauka mishap, Roscosmos had been battered by embarrassing headlines in the Russian media involving a well-regarded veteran cosmonaut.
Sergei Krikalyov was reportedly demoted after he complained about a plan championed by Roskosmos’s chief executive, Dmitry Rogozin, to send a well-known TV director and a famous actress to shoot a feature film on the orbiting station.
Rogozin, who was named as a co-producer, has also been the subject of years of grumbling about his questionable leadership.
Roscosmos’s biggest vulnerability at present, experts say, is the loss of steady revenue from NASA, which has for nearly a decade paid Russia to shuttle US astronauts and cargo to and from the ISS.
The advent of private, mainly US-based space companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin, however, has deprived Roskosmos of a steady revenue stream.
Earlier this year, Russian space officials were talking about pulling out of the ISS when the current agreement with America and other partners expires in 2025, a reflection of souring relations with the US.
Sources: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, NASA, EarthSky.org, New York Times, arsTechnica.com, Space.com