The Daily Beast reports: NASA and the Russian space agency on Aug. 29 discovered a hole in the International Space Station that was leaking the station’s limited supply of breathable air out into space.
And immediately the question that presented itself, ready made for a grim outer-space thriller, is who done it? The implications are so sinister—sabotage by someone on the ground, or, creepier still, one of the six astronauts on board—that initial reports suggested it was a puncture by some random space junk. But that no longer appears to be the case.
After the simple repair, the station—humanity’s only off-world habitat—is fully functional and there’s no danger to the crew, NASA said.
But according to the Russian space agency, the hole might have come from someone deliberately drilling through the thin hull of the Soyuz resupply capsule that, at the time NASA detected the leak, was attached to the Russian side of the station.
“There were several attempts at drilling,” Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian Ruscosmos space agency, said in televised comments on Sept. 4. “What is this: a production defect or some premeditated actions?”
The mystery began when controllers in Houston and Moscow detected a slight drop in the station’s internal air pressure. The whole crew—three Americans, a German and two Russians—was asleep at the time. Controllers waited until the crew awoke to alert them to the problem.
“They were in no danger,” Stephanie Schierholz, a NASA spokesperson, told The Daily Beast via email.
Controllers in Houston worked with their colleagues in Moscow and the station crew to plug the hole. Cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev “used epoxy on a gauze wipe to plug the hole identified as the leak source,” NASA explained.
Meanwhile, controllers restored the station’s normal air pressure by releasing oxygen from a Progress supply capsule, one of three spacecraft docked at the station at the time.
Reading news of the leak, observers on Earth immediately suspected “micrometeoroid/orbital debris” or MMOD—a.k.a., space junk—was the cause. But an MMOD strike powerful enough to punch a hole in the station is highly unlikely.
“The space station is the most heavily shielded spacecraft ever flown,” Schierholz said. “Critical components, e.g., habitable compartments and high-pressure tanks, will normally be able to withstand the impact of debris as large as one centimeter in diameter.
Shortly after plugging the leak, NASA published photos of the hole. Sure enough, it didn’t look like the kind of damage space debris would inflict. “Hmmm, doesn’t look like MMOD,” tweeted Chris Bergin, managing editor of NASASpaceFlight.com.
Indeed, the hole looked very much like it was drilled. Sloppily. Perhaps by someone with a “wavering hand,” as Rogozin said in his televised remarks.
Rogozin said it’s possible someone tried to sabotage the Soyuz capsule while it was on Earth. “We are checking the Earth version,” he said. “But there is another version that we do not rule out: deliberate interference in space.”
It’s unclear why one of the station’s crew would want to vent their own breathable air into space. It’s unprecedented for a cosmonaut or astronaut, or anyone else associated with any country’s space program, to secretly damage a spacecraft. “There are no earlier instances of sabotage in space history that I can point toward,” Roger Launius, NASA’s former chief historian, told The Daily Beast.
Roscosmos has convened a special commission to investigate the hole. The commission will issue its report in September, the Russian space agency stated. “Measures will be defined to prevent such situations.”
“NASA will support the commission’s work as appropriate,” Schierholz said.
If the hole really is the result of sabotage, the implications are serious for the Russian space agency, NASA and humanity’s access to space.
While both American and Russian robotic capsules haul supplies to the International Space Station, at present only Russia’s Soyuz capsules are certified to transport people to the station. NASA plans to begin using new capsule designs from Boeing and SpaceX to carry station crew starting in 2019.
Until then, the rest of the world needs Russian capsules. If Moscow grounds Soyuz, it temporarily grounds the whole human race.
NASA insisted it is optimistic the Russians will figure out what went wrong, and prevent it happening again. “Our Russian partners have demonstrated their human and technological resilience many times throughout the history of their efforts in human spaceflight,” Schierholz said. Read more at The Daily Beast.