NASA mulls SpaceX backup plan for leaky Russian Soyuz crew

NASA is investigating whether SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft could potentially provide a homecoming alternative for some International Space Station crew members after a Russian capsule caused a coolant leak while on board it was docked in the orbiting laboratory.

NASA and Russia’s space agency Roscosmos are investigating the cause of a punctured coolant line in an external radiator on Russia’s Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, which is due to return its crew of two cosmonauts and a US astronaut to Earth early next year.

But the Dec. 14 leak, which drained the Soyuz of a vital fluid used to regulate the crew’s cabin temperature, disrupted routines at the Russian space station, with engineers in Moscow considering the possibility of launching another Soyuz to rescue the three men. . team that flew to the ISS. aboard the damaged MS-22 ship.

If Russia cannot launch another Soyuz spacecraft, or decides for some reason that it would be too risky, NASA is considering another option.

“We have asked SpaceX some questions about their ability to return additional crew to Dragon if needed, but that is not our primary focus at this time,” NASA spokeswoman Sandra Jones said in a statement to Reuters.

SpaceX did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

It was unclear what NASA had specifically asked about SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capabilities, such as whether the company could find a way to increase the capacity of the Crew Dragon currently docked at the station or launch an empty capsule to rescue the crew.

But the company’s potential involvement in a Russian-led mission underscores the degree of precaution NASA is taking to ensure its astronauts can safely return to Earth, should any of the other contingency plans made by Russia fail.

From left: NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, Roscosmos cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Dmitry Petelin are shown before the launch of the Soyuz MS-22 mission on September 21. (Yuri Kochetkov/Associated Press)

The leaked Soyuz capsule carried US astronaut Frank Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin to the space station in September for a six-month mission. Their return was scheduled for March 2023.

The station’s other four crew members – two more from NASA, a third Russian cosmonaut and a Japanese astronaut – arrived in October via a NASA-contracted SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which also remains stationed on the ISS.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, a bubblegum-shaped capsule with four seats for astronauts, has become the centerpiece of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts in low Earth orbit. Apart from the Russian Soyuz program, it is the only entity capable of transporting humans to the space station and vice versa.

3 possible culprits

Finding out what caused the leak can lead to decisions on how best to fire crew members. A perforation caused by a meteoroid, an impact of space debris or a hardware failure of the Soyuz capsule itself are three possible causes of the leak that NASA and Roscosmos are investigating.

A hardware malfunction could raise additional questions for Roscosmos about the integrity of other Soyuz vehicles, such as what might be sent to rescue the crew, said Mike Suffredini, who led NASA’s ISS program for a decade until 2015.

“I can assure you it’s something they’re looking at, to see what’s out there and if there’s any concerns about it,” he said. “The thing about Russians is they’re very good at not talking about what they’re doing, but they’re very thorough.”

In this image from the video made available by NASA, a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule approaches the International Space Station on Oct. (NASA)

Roscosmos head Yuri Borisov previously said engineers would decide by Tuesday how to return the crew to Earth, but the agency said today it would make the decision in January.

NASA previously said that capsule temperatures remain “within acceptable limits”, with the crew compartment currently ventilated with airflow allowed through an open hatch to the ISS.

Sergei Krikalev, head of Russia’s manned space programs, told reporters last week that the temperature would rise rapidly if the station’s hatch were closed.

NASA and Roscosmos are primarily focused on determining the cause of the leak, Jones said, as well as the health of the MS-22, which is also expected to serve as a lifeboat for the three-man crew in the event of an emergency. station would require an evacuation.

A recent meteor shower initially seemed to increase the chances of a micrometeoroid strike as the culprit, but the leak was the wrong way to go for that to be the case, NASA ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano told reporters last week. , although a space rock may have come from the other direction.

And if a piece of space junk is to blame, it could stoke concerns of an increasingly messy orbital environment and raise questions about whether vital equipment, like the spacecraft’s cooling line, should have been protected by debris shielding like other spacecraft. parts of the MS-22. spaceships are.

“We’re not immune to everything on the space station,” Suffredini said. “We cannot protect ourselves from everything.

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