NASA mulls SpaceX backup plan for crew of leaky Russian Soyuz ship

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

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

But the December 14 leak, which drained the Soyuz of a vital fluid used to regulate the temperature of the crew cabin, has derailed routines at the Russian space station, with engineers in Moscow considering whether to launch another Soyuz to pick up the three-man team that flew to the ISS. aboard the crippled MS-22 craft.

If Russia can’t launch another Soyuz ship, or decides for some reason it would be too risky, NASA is considering another option.

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

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.

It was unclear what NASA had specifically asked of 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 a capsule. empty for the rescue of 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 return to Earth safely, should any of the other contingency plans be made. by Russia fails.

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 leaky 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 four other 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 at the ISS. .

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, a gumball-shaped pod with four astronaut seats, has become the centerpiece of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts in low Earth orbit. Besides the Russian Soyuz program, it is the only entity capable of transporting humans to the space station and back.

3 possible culprits

Finding out what caused the leak could factor into decisions on how best to fire crew members. A puncture caused by a meteoroid, a space debris strike 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 the one it might send 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 anything to worry about,” he said. “The thing about Russians is that they’re really good at not talking about what they’re doing, but they’re very thorough.”

In this image from video made available by NASA, a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule approaches the International Space Station on October 6. (NASA)

Roscosmos chief 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 has previously said the capsule’s temperatures remain “within acceptable limits”, with its crew compartment currently ventilated with airflow allowed through an open hatch to the ISS.

Sergei Krikalev, Russia’s head of crewed space programs, told reporters last week that the temperature would rise rapidly if the station’s hatch was 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 intended to serve as a lifeboat for the three-man crew in case. where an emergency on the station would require an evacuation.

A recent meteor shower initially appeared to increase the chances of a micrometeoroid strike as the culprit, but the leak was the wrong way for that to be the case, NASA ISS program manager Joel Montalbano said. , to reporters last week, although a space rock may have come from another 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 such as the spacecraft’s cooling line should have be protected by debris shielding, like other parts of the MS-22 spacecraft are.

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

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