HomeScienceRussia’s space program just threw a NASA astronaut under the bus

Russia’s space program just threw a NASA astronaut under the bus

 Image of the hole in Soyuz MS-09 vehicle docked to the International Space Station in 2018.
Enlarge / Image of the hole in Soyuz MS-09 vehicle docked to the International Space Station in 2018.

Russia’s state-owned news service, TASS, has published an extraordinarily defamatory article about NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor. The publication claims that Auñón-Chancellor had an emotional breakdown in space, then damaged a Russian spacecraft in order to return early. This, of course, is a complete fabrication.

The context for the article is the recent, near-disastrous docking of the Russian Nauka science module with the International Space Station. The TASS article attempts to rebut criticism in US publications (including Ars Technica) that covered the incident and raised questions about the future of the Roscosmos-NASA partnership in space.

One of a dozen rebuttals in the TASS article concerns a 2018 incident—a 2 mm breach in the orbital module of the Soyuz MS-09 vehicle docked with the International Space Station. Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev, European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst, and NASA’s Auñón-Chancellor had flown to the station inside this Soyuz in June. The leak was discovered in late August.

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.

Attention quickly turned to what had caused the hole to appear. A micrometeoroid strike was ruled out. Some Russian media reported that it had been caused by a manufacturing or testing defect, and this seems to be the most plausible theory. At the same time, however, sources in the Russian government started baseless rumors that perhaps a disgruntled NASA astronaut had drilled the hole.

To obtain more data, two Russian cosmonauts went on a dramatic spacewalk in December 2018 and used knives to cut through the exterior insulation on the Soyuz vehicle. They sampled the site where the hole had been and took high-definition images and GoPro video of the exterior of the leak site to help Russian investigators determine what had caused the hole. Prokopyev, Gerst, and Auñón-Chancellor then returned safely to Earth in the Soyuz at the end of December. If the Russians ever completed their investigation of the hole’s cause, they never released it publicly.

In the report published Thursday, however, TASS reopens the case. The format of the story is such that journalist Mikhail Kotov interviews an anonymous “high-ranking official in the Russian space industry.” Based upon the comments made by this person, the source is probably the head of the Russian space corporation, Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin.

Here is a translation of the relevant part of the article, completed by Rob Mitchell for Ars. The original article was published in the Russian language:

In order to establish what really happened in the “hole in the Soyuz” incident there were several space walks by Russian cosmonauts back in December 2018. They went to the orbital module of the ship (Soyuz) which had been damaged and performed necessary tests.

Bear in mind that this sort of damage could not have occurred on Earth, because the ship is tested in a vacuum chamber before launch. If there had been any hole the pressure in the ship would have fallen rapidly and it would not have passed the vacuum test. Thus Roscosmos excluded the scenario that Soyuz MS-09 was damaged on Earth.

Concerning the possibility of the hole having been caused while on orbit, it is necessary to take into account several circumstances, says my anonymous source. Firstly, the illness of the female astronaut, which is the first known incident of deep vein thrombosis in orbit, and the fact that Serena Maria Auñón-Chancellor had suffered the condition was published in a scientific article only after she had returned to Earth. This could have provoked ‘an acute psychological crisis’, which could have led to attempts by various means to speed up her return to the planet, according to my anonymous source. Secondly, for some reason unknown to Roscosmos, the video camera at the junction of the Russian and American segments was not working at that time. Thirdly, the Americans refused to perform a polygraph examination, while the Russian cosmonauts were polygraphed. Fourthly, Russia never had an opportunity to study the tools and the drill which are aboard the ISS to see if there are any signs of metal shavings from the hull of our ship’s orbital module.

Finally, and fifthly, of eight holes only one went all the way through the hull. The others were skips of the drill, which suggests drilling in weightless conditions without needed support. One hole was drilled in the framework (a transverse rib of the ship’s hull), that is, whoever drilled it was not trained in the construction of the Soyuz MS.

There are a number of troubling aspects about this article, particularly as it relates to Dr. Auñón-Chancellor, who was the only female on board the station at the time. First, it publicly reveals her previously undisclosed health condition on orbit, which was successfully treated upon her return to Earth. Then, the TASS article says such a condition could have caused a “psychological crisis” that induced her to want to return to Earth early. The Russian theory here is that, apparently by damaging the Soyuz vehicle, Auñón-Chancellor would impel Russian and NASA authorities to allow her to fly back to Earth immediately.

Then the article asserts that a video camera that could have shown NASA astronauts entering the Russian segment of the space station—where the Soyuz vehicle was docked—may have been tampered with. The article also says NASA astronauts refused a polygraph test about the incident and that Russian cosmonauts were not allowed to assess US tools on the station that may have been used to drill into the ship’s hull.

The crew of Soyuz MS-09 (Sergey Prokopyev, Alexander Gerst, and Serena Auñón-Chancellor) is seen aboard the International Space Station in 2018.
Enlarge / The crew of Soyuz MS-09 (Sergey Prokopyev, Alexander Gerst, and Serena Auñón-Chancellor) is seen aboard the International Space Station in 2018.

NASA

No one is perfect, of course. Astronauts are people, and all people have flaws. But the idea that a NASA astronaut snapped on orbit and decided to drill her way through a pressure module, with only vacuum on the other side, is preposterous.

Also, there is a very reasonable explanation for the hole. The TASS article dismisses the possibility that the problem happened on Earth, before launch. But this is almost certainly what happened. Most likely a technician accidentally damaged the Soyuz spacecraft and sought to cover up this error by applying a makeshift patch, perhaps some form of super glue. Such a patch would have held up during a vacuum chamber test on Earth but eventually failed during prolonged exposure on orbit. And going through repeated thermal cycles in and out of Earth’s shadow wouldn’t have done the patch any favors. Russia’s engineers must know this.

NASA’s response to the TASS story, via a statement from Administrator Bill Nelson’s office in the District of Columbia on Thursday evening, elicits 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.

This statement does not exonerate Auñón-Chancellor. NASA’s public relations folks apparently weighed whether they should stand up for their astronaut and respond to something obviously ridiculous or, for the sake of expediency, avoid getting into a pissing match with Roscosmos. They chose the latter.

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