About a week ago you may have heard about a very small air leak aboard the Internation Space Station (or ISS for short) that caused a very slight drop in cabin pressure on August 30. Now, the leak was very easily fixed by astronauts and you may have thought it was no big deal, right? Well, think again. It would appear that this “no big deal” leak was potentially caused by a human, triggering the question “who did it?”. The implications to this are so incredibly massive, so finding out what actually happened is crucial.
For those of you out there who don’t know what happened, here’s what went down on August 29:
Around 7 pm Eastern time on August 29 European Space Agency (ESA for short) flight control noticed a slight drop in cabin pressure aboard the International Space Station. Since it did not pose an immediate danger to the astronauts on board, controllers decided not to wake the sleeping crew and instead chose to tell them about it when they woke up. When the crew woke up NASA and Russian Mission Control out of Moscow both alerted astronauts to the issue so that they could begin to narrow down the location of the leak. Eventually, astronauts narrowed down the location to the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft, which is actually in the Russian area of the ISS. The crew was able to find what they originally believed to be a micrometeoroid impact (but now, of course, is believed to be something human done). The puncture was 2-millimeters big and astronauts were able to successfully repair it temporarily with epoxy while a more permanent solution is being thought of.
While the initial reports don’t seem to immediately point to some sort of human sabotage, Agence France-Presse is reporting that the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, is claiming that the micropuncture was drilled by a technician, not caused by a meteoroid like initially believed. Now that is quite the accusation, it is understandable since this puncture was found in the Russian section of the ISS. Why did Roscosmos throw out the idea of it being a micrometeoroid so quickly? According to Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, “It is too early to say definitely what happened. But, it seems to be done by a faltering hand… It is a technological error by a specialist. It was done by a human hand. There are traces of a drill sliding along the surface. We don’t reject any theories.”.
Now, here’s the kicker. Maybe you can try to shrug off the Russians as being conspiracy theorists or that they’re looking for something to be mad about. But, that doesn’t explain NASA’s reaction. NASA was seeming 100% behind the idea that the puncture was a micrometeoroid impact and even unloaded a picture of it to their Twitter page to show people what caused the problem. And that’s where the problems started and when things became complicated. As someone who saw the picture, I can tell you it was… questionable. There was a puncture, yes, but near the puncture were slight marks where it appears a drill could have been moved or nudged and skirted along the outside of the puncture, like the person’s hand that was drilling was faltering. And many people noticed this, and lots of questions and comments began being raised. Then NASA deleted the Tweet entirely and never addressed it again. (If you want to see the picture you can check out this picture here, saved by Chris Bergen, an editor for the website NASA Space Flight.) NASA’s quick reaction really seem to point to either 1) they believe it was something else or 2) they want to show good faith to the Russians and show the American’s support in whatever the Russians believe. Regardless, it is interesting.
The question now raised is “whodunit”, right? Well, it obviously would have been done in either two locations; up there in space in zero gravity or on Earth. Now drilling in zero gravity would be extremely difficult, but it has not been ruled out by Roscosmos. Rogozin explained that he understood that some of the cosmonauts up there want to go home and he could see that someone could possibly deliberately sabotage the ISS to get sent home. With that being said, Roscosmos is leaning more towards the possibility of the puncture having been made on the ground and it being covered up, instead of it being done in space.
The most “believable” explanation is that the Soyuz capsule was somehow damaged at the testing facilities, Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan after it had already passed initial safety checks. It is likely someone accidentally drilled the hole, realized their mistake, and then hastily covered it up with some sort of sealant or epoxy that either dried up or fell off by the time it actually reached the ISS. If that is the case, the sabotage would not necessarily be intended, it is now a matter of tracking down what the heck actually happened.
Now, who knows what will come out in the coming weeks, where the finger pointing will go, and where the accusations will fly before the actual truth is found. What happened is very troubling, and the fact that if it was an accident (that was covered up) that wasn’t caught is very scary, so that should be a wakeup call to these facilities to have more stringent testing and rechecking procedures. If it happened in space then that is truly a whole other story. Astronauts go through some serious training and vetting and are trusted to be up there in space running experiments and doing whatever it is mission control asks of them. If one of the 6 astronauts on board did it to get sent home it is understandable but extremely disappointing. Either way, the investigation is underway and we are certainly interested in learning more about this very troubling (yet very interesting) mystery aboard the ISS.