Spacewalk Planned to Investigate Mysterious "Sabotage" Hole in ISS
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station will conduct a spacewalk next month to learn more about a pressure leak discovered in August that has resulted in a mild international incident between the United States and Russia.
On Wednesday, NASA released a carefully worded statement sharing news of the November spacewalk — no date has been announced — that adds color to previous statements made by Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Russian space agency ROSCOSMOS. Rogozin has indicated that a small hole in the space station was not a manufacturing defect. “The version that now remains … it was a deliberate act, and a second commission will determine where this occurred,” he said in an interview on Monday on state-run TV in Russia. “Sabotage” is a theory that hasn’t been ruled out by Russia.
However, NASA pointed out on Wednesday in a statement that Rogozin’s “conclusion does not necessarily mean the hole was created intentionally or with mal-intent.”
During the handoff ceremony on Wednesday morning between ISS expeditions 56 and 57, there was only one clue of the turmoil. Drew Fesutel, the American commander of Expedition 56, accentuated the positive to Expedition 56 flight engineer/Expedition 57 commander Alex Gerst of Germany this way: “Best of luck to you and your crew during your command of Expedition 57,” Feustel told Gerst after he flipped him a commemorative medallion in the microgravity of the ISS. “May it prove to be both interesting and positively exciting,” he said, emphasizing the good feelings to his fellow geophysicist.
In an interview with ABC News in September, Feustel said, “I think it’s absolutely a shame and somewhat embarrassing that anybody is wasting any time talking about something that the crew was involved in.”
The 2-millimeter hole appeared to have been made with a drill. It is in the Russia-made Soyuz MS-09 capsule that first docked at the space station in June, and the hole is located in a part of the capsule that isn’t used to carry astronauts back to Earth. Ground control in Houston first noticed air pressure dropping on August 29, and after it was patched up with epoxy, no changes in pressure have been observed since August 31.
Russia’s state-run media agency, TASS, reported in September that the Soyuz capsule might have been damaged during terrestrial tests on the ground at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Russia’s testing and launch site. The anonymous source speculated to TASS that an accidental drill hole might have been patched up during testing, but when the glue dried up in space, it fell out, and air pressure was lost.
NASA and ROSCOSMOS issued a joint statement last month announcing plans for the top administrators from each agency to meet over the mystery this month.
NASA chief Jim Bridenstine is scheduled to attend the October 11 launch to the ISS from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and plans to meet with Rogozin during the visit. The launch will see more Expedition 57 members — American Astronaut Nick Hague and Russian Cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin — travel aboard a Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft to the ISS.
The meeting between Bridenstine and Rogozin will be their first face-to-face encounter, following a phone call on September 12 during which they discussed the ISS leak. Bridenstine was confirmed by Congress in April and Rogozin appointed by Putin in May.
Expedition 56 for the ISS will be remembered by history in part, at least, for the mysterious hole that was discovered in the Soyuz capsule. During the handoff ceremony Wednesday, Gerst, an Expedition 56 crew member and commander of 57, chose to look forward with his remarks, perhaps feeling the overview effect: “There’s seven billion humans down there. You sent six of us up here. We are from three different continents, and we are here for you,” he said. “We are your eyes looking down on the beautiful planet.”
Story Timeline of the ISS Leak:
— October 3: NASA announces that the pressure leak will be investigated during a November spacewalk.
The Soyuz spacecraft is produced by Russian firm RKK Energia and is the only spacecraft model that currently carries humans between Earth and the International Space Station.
SpaceX, Boeing, and NASA are developing their own capsules. This summer, NASA announced that it would test the Boeing-made CST-100 Starliner capsule in mid-2019 and it would test the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in April 2019.
The NASA/ESA-operated Orion spacecraft, which is being built by Lockheed Martin and Airbus and would carry four people to and from the ISS, is also in development.
These new capsules would reduce or eliminate U.S. dependence on Russia’s Soyuz capsule.
With reporting by Peter Hess.