NASA mulls SpaceX backup plan for crew of Russia’s spaceship

WASHINGTON — NASA is exploring whether SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft can offer an alternate ride home for some International Space Station crew members after a Russian capsule leaked coolant while docked to the orbiting laboratory.

NASA and the Russian 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 supposed to return to Earth with its crew of two cosmonauts and an American astronaut early next year.

But the December 14 leak, which drained the Soyuz of a vital fluid used to regulate crew cabin temperatures, derailed routines on Russia’s space station, with engineers in Moscow examining whether to launch another Soyuz to recover the three-man team that flew to the ISS on board. the damaged ship MS-22.

If Russia can’t launch another Soyuz spacecraft, or decides for some reason that doing so would be too risky, NASA is considering another option.

“We have asked SpaceX some questions about its ability to send additional crew members to Dragon if necessary, 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 wasn’t clear what NASA specifically asked about SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capabilities, such as whether the company can find a way to increase the crew capacity of the Dragon currently docked to the station, or launch an empty capsule for crew rescue. .

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

The leaking Soyuz capsule carried American astronaut Frank Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dimitri Petelin to the space station in September for a six-month mission. They were scheduled to return to Earth in 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 on the ISS.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, a four-seat gummy-shaped capsule for astronauts, has become the centerpiece of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts in low-Earth orbit. Other than Russia’s Soyuz program, it is the only entity capable of transporting humans to the space station and back.

Finding the cause of the leak could influence decisions about the best way to return crew members. A perforation caused by a metroid, the impact of a piece of space debris or a hardware failure in 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 that it is something that they are looking at, to see what is back there and if there are any concerns about it,” he said. “The thing about the Russians is that they’re very good at not talking about what they’re doing, but they’re very thorough.”

Roscosmos chief Yuri Borisov had previously said engineers would decide on Tuesday how to return the crew to Earth, but the agency said that day it would make the decision in January.

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

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

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

Initially, a recent meteor shower seemed to increase the odds that a micrometeoroid was to blame, but the leak was on the wrong track for that to be the case, NASA’s ISS program manager told reporters last week, Joel Montalbano, although a space rock could have done it. come from another direction.

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

“We’re not protected against everything on the space station,” Suffredini said. “We can’t protect ourselves against everything.”

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