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Stuck in space: Russia, US announce plan to bring cosmonauts home

NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin will be getting a ride home from the International Space Station — but it may take a while. 

The trio flew to the space station in a Russian Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft in September. In December, a tiny micrometeorite strike caused a puncture no more than 1 millimeter in diameter in the Soyuz, which was enough to cause coolant to leak out into space.  

Russian space officials have been working with NASA since the incident to come up with the best course of action. Would the MS-22 spacecraft be able to safely deliver the crew home? Could they get a replacement vehicle to the station? Or would they need to call upon commercial partners like SpaceX for help? 

The Russian Space Agency gave its answer on Wednesday, announcing it would be sending up an uncrewed replacement craft, Soyuz MS-23, to replace the damaged spacecraft as a crew lifeboat. That craft is slated to launch on Feb. 20, and the MS-22 will be sent back to Earth without a crew. 

“Analysis of the spacecraft, including thermal calculations and technical documentation, shows that the MS-22 must be landed without a crew on board,” Sergei Krikalev, the executive director of Russia’s human spaceflight program, said during a news briefing.

However, it’s still unclear when Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin will get a ride home. 

That’s because the MS-23 spacecraft was originally planned for another crew, which will need to reach the space station before the last Soyuz crew can depart, as two crews are needed aboard the station. Neither NASA nor Roscosmos said exactly how long the mission would be extended, just that it would likely be for several months.  

The Russian spacecraft is currently one of two crewed vehicles attached to the space station that can carry astronauts home in the event of an emergency or at the end of their mission. 

Joel Montalbano, NASA’s space station program manager, said the crew would be fine in the meantime. 

“[The crew is] excited to be in space, excited to work and excited to do the research that we do on orbit,” he said during a news briefing on Wednesday. “So they are ready to go with whatever decision that we give them.”

“I may have to fly some more ice cream [and other fresh food] to reward them,” he added.

On Dec. 14, pressure sensors inside the spacecraft’s cooling loop first alerted the crew to a potential leak, which was then visibly confirmed by watching the coolant leak into space. “We could see liquid going out into space,” said Krikalev. “We determined the leak was coming from the radiator.” 

Ever since, NASA and Roscosmos have been working together to analyze imagery and data collected from the afflicted spacecraft to figure out the cause and how to proceed on the crew’ return. 

“Space is not a safe place, and not a safe environment,” Krikalev said. “We have meteorites, we have a vacuum and we have a high temperature and we have complicated hardware that can fail.”

He added it’s important to always be prepared and plan for every possible scenario. To that end, NASA officials have said that the crew is in good health and that the space station has supplies to feed everyone for now, so there’s no reason to send the crew home immediately. 

A week or two after the MS-23 arrives at the space station next month, the MS-22 will undock from the station and land in Kazakhstan. Krikalev says that while dates are subject to change, Roscosmos expected the Soyuz MS-23 to launch to the space station on Feb. 20.

During the weeks following its arrival, Krikalev said that the crew will take some time to transfer things like equipment, survival gear and their personal belongings from MS-22 to MS-23 while both are docked at the space station.

Then in roughly mid-March, the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft will return to Earth, where both NASA and Russian officials will study its thermal properties as the craft reenters the Earth’s atmosphere. Krikalev said that although they don’t believe the radiator issue would pose a safety threat to the crew, they are not sure how hot it would get inside the vehicle. 

NASA and Roscosmos are still working out timelines, as this incident could affect other crewed missions. SpaceX’s Crew-5 Dragon spacecraft is also currently docked at the space station, and its crew of four is set to return home in the February/March time frame, with their replacements, Crew-6, set to launch about a week before. 

The Soyuz incident could cause those timelines to shift as well. NASA will spend the next couple of weeks determining how the launch of MS-23 will impact when future NASA and SpaceX launches occur.

But what happens in the meantime if there’s some sort of emergency? 

Roscosmos says it is evaluating whether the MS-22 spacecraft can be used to rescue the crew in the unlikely event of an emergency in space where the crew would need to evacuate the station. Krikalev said that the concern is that in this scenario, temperatures in the capsule could become uncomfortable or even unsafe for the crew, reaching upward of 86 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (30 to 40 degrees Celsius).

“In case of an emergency, when the crew will have a real threat to life on the station, then probably the danger of staying on the station can be higher than going down in an unhealthy Soyuz,” Krikalev said.

According to Montalbano, NASA was exploring whether SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft could offer an alternative ride home for some space station crew members, in the event Russia was unable to launch another Soyuz. 

That option would be trickier, as adding crew to the Dragon means it can’t take some cargo home, which could delay valuable research. It’s also tricky because SpaceX’s spacesuits are designed to work with the Dragon capsule, tailormade to fit each individual astronaut and act as a lifeboat inside the capsule if something were to go wrong. Not having one would be another safety issue. 

But that won’t be an issue as long as all goes according to Russia’s plan. 

Tags cosmonauts International Space Station nasa Soyuz

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