It’s 7:00 p.m. on August 29, 2018, and six astronauts are fast asleep on the International Space Station (ISS), unaware that a malfunction threatens their life support systems. Back on Earth, NASA has just detected what Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, will later describe as “an abnormal situation.” In fact, the space station is leaking oxygen and losing pressure…
Continually inhabited for close to two decades, the ISS is an orbiting science laboratory with the unique capacity to conduct experiments in a microgravity environment. Described by the European Space Agency (ESA) as “the greatest international project of all time,” the station is co-managed by the United States, Europe, Russia, Japan and Canada.
On June 6, 2018, a Soyuz spaceship arrived at the ISS with a three-person crew composed of European, American and Russian space travelers. Soyuz is in fact a Russian-built capsule first engineered by the Soviet Union during the Space Race in the 1960s. And it’s the only spacecraft in the world currently capable of carrying astronauts to the ISS.
Among the Soyuz capsule’s passengers was Alexander Gerst, a German astronaut working for the ESA. Born in 1976, Gerst had first been chosen for astronautic training back in 2009. He subsequently joined ISS Expeditions 40 and 41. And then, in June 2018, he participated in Expedition 56 as a flight engineer.
The expedition’s commander was Michigan-born NASA astronaut Drew Feustel, a seismologist with a doctorate in geological sciences. Feustel had experienced his first spaceflight in 2009. And on Expedition 56, he was assisted by five flight engineers: NASA’s Ricky Arnold and Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Sergei Prokopyev and Oleg Artemyev from Roscosmos, and Gerst.
Expedition 56 had three main study objectives. First, the crew was to test a new sextant that might one day be used for deep space travel. Second, the team was to gather samples of microbes on the ISS and analyze their genetic structure for possible mutations. Finally, the expedition’s Cold Atom Lab was to run atomic experiments in a microgravity environment.
After NASA observers detected a fall in pressure at the ISS, the crew traced the malfunction to the newly docked Soyuz capsule. The culprit was in fact a tiny hole. Described by Roscosmos as a “micro-fracture” according to The Guardian, the hole was just 0.08 inches across. However, in the vacuum of space, it was nonetheless sufficiently large to drain the ISS of vital pressure and oxygen.
Naturally, the discovery of the leak signaled an immediate disruption to the mission. And back on Earth, Roscosmos scrambled to brief the media. Speaking to British newspaper The Guardian on 31 August, Rogozin said, “A micro-fracture was found, most likely it is damage from the outside. The design engineers believe it is the result of a micrometeorite.”
Micrometeorites – or micrometeoroids, as they’re called when outside the Earth’s atmosphere – are tiny rock or dust particles. Often traveling at speeds in excess of 20,000 miles per hour, they pose a serious threat to satellites, spacesuits and spacecraft alike. Over time, the impact of micrometeoroids causes abrasions and microscopic holes on the surface of space equipment, much like a sandblast would.
After discovering the Soyuz leak, astronaut Gerst decided to apply a memorable, if somewhat unconventional, solution. He plugged the hole with his finger, in fact. And in so doing, he became the second person in history to directly come into contact with outer space. The first was Jay Apt, whose glove was torn by a metal rod during a spacewalk back in 1991.
Of course, a leaking Soyuz capsule is hardly the first technical issue to have affected the ISS during its 20 years of service. In January 2004, for example, another air leak occurred. And it was serious enough to cause the pressure of the ISS to fall by nearly 5 percent.
Then, on February 7, 2019, ISS faced an altogether different kind of leak. In fact, the crew were attempting to renovate the ISS’ outdated toilet when it spewed out a large volume of liquid. Of course, the zero-gravity environment meant that a simple floor mop would hardly suffice.
Speaking to The Independent, a NASA representative said, “Astronauts detached a connection point to the potable water system and about two-and-a-half gallons of water leaked from the system. As anyone who has worked on plumbing in their own home knows, these types of things sometimes happen.”
In fact, their maintenance work was intended to precede the installation of an entirely new waste management system, which was scheduled to arrive at the ISS in 2020. Using towels, the crew eventually managed to clean up the mess. And when flight controllers subsequently conducted analyses of the station’s onboard systems, they thankfully found that no permanent harm had been done.
Of course, Gerst couldn’t plug the most recent hole forever, so while he waited, the crew hit upon a new solution. They patched the leak with Kapton, which is the high-tech equivalent of duct tape Kapton tape – but considerably more robust. Indeed, it’s used in everything from thermal blankets to electronics and can endure a temperature range of −452° F to 752° F.
But Kapton tape, too, was only a short-term fix to a potentially catastrophic problem. Ultimately, NASA and Roscosmos decided that something stronger was needed. So they directed Soyuz commander Sergey Prokopyez to cover the opening with gauze and then seal it with epoxy resin. And that seemed to do the job.
NASA then released a statement reassuring the public that the ISS team was safe. “Throughout the day the crew was never in any danger and was told no further action was contemplated for the remainder of the day,” it read. “Flight controllers will monitor the pressure trends overnight. All station systems are stable, and the crew is planning to return to its regular schedule of work on Friday.”
However, Gerst apparently had a different take. Speaking to BBC Radio 4 in December 2018, he said, “As an astronaut, you think, ‘Well, what would have happened if it broke loose a little bit earlier, when we were traveling to the space station, when you only have a very small volume of air in that spacecraft?’ Even though the hole was small… it would have been more severe for us.”
In addition, the supposed “microfracture” went on to become the source of a heated international controversy. When photos of the hole were released to the public, in fact, it became apparent that the damage to the Soyuz capsule hadn’t been caused by a micrometeoroid after all. Instead, the clean, round shape of the hole strongly indicated that it had been drilled.
One possible explanation for the hole is that in the course of the capsule’s construction or its subsequent pre-flight preparations, technicians may have inadvertently created it with a drill. Then, to cover up their mistake, they poured glue in. Such a fix could have passed tests on Earth but then come loose during space flight.
However, Roscosmos insisted this wasn’t the case. According to Rogozin, who was quoted by the science and technology website Ars Technica in October 2018, its investigation had “ruled out” a manufacturing defect. Rogozin didn’t indicate what may have caused the hole, though. As a result, conspiracy theorists in Russia went to town.
Indeed, some of the claims in the Russian media were so wild that they risked causing a diplomatic rift between NASA and Roscosmos. For example, according to several outlets, it wasn’t Russian technicians who were responsible for drilling the hole, but NASA astronauts. And according to the conspiracy theorists, the drilling wasn’t an accident but a deliberate act of sabotage.
Moreover, according to Kommersant, Russian investigators were taking the theory quite seriously. In part, that was because the doubts expressed by Rogozin seemed suggestive of a conspiracy. “[The] results we have received do not give us an objective picture,” he told the newspaper. “The situation is much more complex than we earlier thought.”
But if Rogozin was vague, several anonymous sources were far more explicit. “Our Soyuz is… next to the hatch into the American segment of the station,” one of them said. “Access to our ship is possible only with the permission of our commander, but we cannot exclude unsanctioned access by the Americans.”
If NASA astronauts made the hole, though, what was the motive? According to the Russian theories, one of the astronauts had become unwell, but NASA was reluctant to bear the considerable cost of having a new Soyuz capsule transport them home. So, instead, they sabotaged the docked spacecraft to necessitate an emergency evacuation. The evidence? Sloppy drill marks around the leak site, which apparently suggested the use of a drill in microgravity.
The Kommersant article went on to state that Roscosmos was looking into the theory and had sought privileged medical details about the American crew, as well as onboard ISS videos. A source said, “If they don’t happen to provide the information, then any additional questions regarding their implication in the incident would be superfluous.”
For its part, NASA understandably declined to comment on the theory. However, ISS Commander Drew Feustel issued a firm rebuttal during an ABC News interview in September 2018. “I can unequivocally say that the crew had nothing to do with this on orbit, without a doubt,” he said. “And I think it’s actually a shame and somewhat embarrassing that anybody is wasting any time talking about [it].”
Nonetheless, Roscosmos continued its investigations. And in December 2018 cosmonauts and Sergei Prokopyev were dispatched to conduct forensic studies on the hull of the defective Soyuz capsule. Their work included a six-hour spacewalk during which they gathered pieces of the damaged spacecraft for lab tests.
Then, in March 2019 Roscosmos announced that it was intending to analyze some mysterious metal shavings found in the Soyuz capsule. Specifically, the agency wanted to determine how the shavings got there and why they were distributed in the way they were. This would require some challenging forensic work, however.
According to the Space Daily website, Rogozin told journalists, “We do not have an answer as to why metal shavings were found in certain areas of the orbital module. In order to answer this… it is necessary… to take a piece of wood into orbit and again drill at about the same place to see how the shaving spread from there. We’ve already conducted such tests on Earth; now we must do it in zero gravity.”
Meanwhile, astronaut Gerst was adamant that the hole had not been drilled by any of the crew members. During an interview with BBC Radio 4 in December 2018, he said, “It was pretty clear in my opinion [that it was] not the crew that sprung the leak… [But] it’s still pretty obvious that it was a manmade hole. The hole was there and it was covered by a little glue, so the question is how did it get there?”
It’s possible that Roscosmos may have been using the incident to shift the media’s focus away from bigger problems within the agency. In fact, Roscosmos is facing severe financial restraints and, due to advances in U.S. spacecraft technology, is about to lose its monopoly on ISS transportation.
In the meantime, from October to December 2018 Gerst took command of the ISS. His fellow crew members for Expedition 57 included Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Anne McClain of NASA, David Saint-Jacques of the Canadian Space Agency, and Sergei Prokopyev and Oleg Kononenko of Roscosmos. They conducted a range of experiments in biology, geoscience and technology.
One of the studies observed the interactions between crew members and an artificial intelligence technology known as the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion (Cimon). Since space travel places high demands on the crew, it’s inevitable that AI will one day assist in space missions. For that reason, the study measured Cimon’s effect on operational efficiency.
Another study sought to model new systems for cancer therapy. Specifically, it tried to culture endothelial cells – that is, cells from the linings of lymphatic vessels and arteries – in a microgravity setting. The results might help to facilitate new methods of treatment, which may in turn lead to better and cheaper medicines.
Finally, Expedition 57 included the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI). Using lasers, GEDI aimed to improve current understanding of water and carbon cycles, as well as offer observations on the Earth’s topography and vegetation. Specifically, the data provided by GEDI will help to quantify the role that forests play in carbon sequestration.
On December 20, 2018, Gerst returned to Earth. His total of 362 days in space is higher than that of any other serving ESA astronaut. Moreover, he’s just the second ESA astronaut in history to serve as commander of the ISS. And, at 42 years of age, he’s also the youngest ever ISS chief.
Speaking to The Independent in 2018, Gerst explained how his time at the ISS had given him a unique sense of the Earth’s vulnerability. He said, “There’s many important things when you fly to space, but perhaps the most important thing – looking down our planet – is to get a perspective of our home.”
“If you look from the outside on that planet, you realize there’s a whole lot of black around it and that planet does not look sturdy,” he continued. “In fact, the ecosystem, that atmosphere, it’s clear that it’s very fragile and we could destroy the conditions that allow us humans to live comfortably. And that is something we often forget.”
Indeed, with some scientists fearing that the Earth has entered a period of mass extinction, our collective future has never looked so uncertain. Unprecedented transnational cooperation may now be necessary if we want to bestow future generations with a habitable and sustainable biosphere. In that respect, internationally managed science projects such as the ISS represent hope for the future, whatever our current political squabbles.