Story at a glance

  • A Russian research module inadvertently fired its propulsion thrusters while docked to the ISS, causing the orbiting laboratory to backflip.
  • While NASA initially said the ISS moved out of altitude by 45 degrees, new reports say the actual figure was closer to 540 degrees.
  • The ISS performed a backflip at the rate of 0.56 degrees per second, slow enough that astronauts reported no noticeable change in conditions.

A tumbling incident involving the International Space Station (ISS) last week may have been more serious than initially reported. 

On Thursday, all seemed to be going well when a Russian research module called Nauka docked on the underside of the more than 900,000-pound orbiting space station. 

Hours later, however, the module inadvertently fired its propulsion thrusters while docked, pulling down the rear of the ISS and causing it to roll backwards, prompting NASA officials to declare a “spacecraft emergency.” 

NASA at the time said the incident caused the ISS to move out of altitude by 45 degrees and reassured the public none of the seven astronauts aboard were in any immediate danger. Nauka’s thrusters eventually stopped firing and crews regained control of the ISS using thrusters around the space station after a little more than 45 minutes. Russian space agency Roscosmos said a software glitch resulted in the firing of the module’s engines. 

But the flight director in charge of the operation at the time revealed to The New York Times that the 45 degree figure was “a little incorrectly reported.” Zebulon Scoville, who was in charge at NASA’s mission control center in Houston, said the actual figure was closer to 540 degrees, meaning the ISS performed 1.5 backflips. 


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Scoville told the Times the ISS stopped upside down and had to carry out a 180-degree forward flip to regain its original position. He said it was the first time he has ever declared a “space emergency.” 

“You get about half a breath of ‘Oh, geez, what?’ and then you kind of push that down and just work the problem,” Scoville told the news outlet. 

The ISS performed a backflip at the rate of 0.56 degrees per second, slow enough that astronauts reported no noticeable change in conditions.

NASA on Tuesday tweeted an update confirming Scoville’s remarks. 

“@space_station was 45° out of attitude when Nauka’s thrusters were still firing & loss of control was discussed with the crew. Further analysis showed total attitude change before regaining normal attitude control was ~540°. Station is in good shape & operating normally,” NASA said. 


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Published on Aug 04, 2021