The latest Russian space station accident points to bigger issues | World Weekly
last Thursday Russia’s large new space station module, the Nauka, has finally docked with the International Space Station after several technical problems on its way to the orbiting laboratory. However, the problems did not end there. About three hours after bonding with the station, Nauka began firing its thrusters, shutting down the space station.
This led NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston to initiate “loss of attitude control” procedures aboard the station, training emergency astronauts and flight controllers. Then, in coordination with flight controllers in Moscow, the teams ordered the station to fire thrusters on the Russian part of the space station, as well as a Progress supply vehicle attached to the laboratory. These combined actions prevented the plant from severely collapsing until the Nauka exhausted its essential fuel supplies.
After this impending accident, NASA hastily called a press conference and brought key figures in front of the media, including the head of human spaceflight Kathy Lueders and International Space Station program leader Joel Montalbano. Both said that NASA and the Russian space company, Roscosmos, had the situation in mind and had reduced the overall risk to the station and the cosmonaut on board.
However, they referred many questions about technical issues to the Russian space agency Roscosmos, which provided mixed messages. A senior official of Roscosmos, former cosmonaut Vladimir Solovyov, said in an official statement, “Due to the failure of a short-range program, a direct order was mistakenly executed to start the unit’s engines for withdrawal, which led to some adjustments in direction for the complex as a whole. “
This makes the problem look like a software bug. But later, the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, admitted that someone on Earth could have made a mistake. “Everything is going well, but there was a human factor,” he told a Russian newspaper, as reported by Reuters. “There was some euphoria (after a successful docking), and everyone relaxed.”
Now that the immediate danger is over, the most pressing concerns are that this ever happened and what it might mean for Russia’s continued participation in the International Space Station program. For NASA, the primary goal is to maintain human presence in low Earth orbit, and that means flying the station for the remainder of the 1920s.
Given the possibility that Nauka’s wrong batch release involved human error, that would be at least the third major problem in less than three years caused by shoddy work. In October 2018, the launch of Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Haig was aborted after a Soyuz booster failed, and the crew was forced to make an emergency return to Earth. A subsequent investigation found that the side booster had been incorrectly mated to the main stage of the Soyuz rocket.
At about the same time, Russia announced that there was a small hole in a different Soyuz craft, already connected to the International Space Station. “We are able to narrow down the cause to a technical error by a technician,” Rogozin said of the problem.
These technical errors occurred when Roscosmos had difficulty paying a living wage for its engineers and technicians. And now the country’s space budget is facing more pressure as NASA no longer needs to buy Soyuz seats for its astronauts to ride to the International Space Station — thanks to the SpaceX Crew Dragon and, hopefully, soon to be Boeing’s Starliner.
Despite all this, NASA has remained openly supportive of Russia and its space program. And he should be relieved that, notwithstanding his many problems getting to the space station, Nauka is now up and running. This is important because it will likely boost Russian participation in the space station for the rest of this decade.
There is no guarantee for that. In recent months, Russian officials have begun to say that Roscosmos’ instruments in orbit, most of which are more than two decades old, have become irreparably old. The Russians also suggested that they might withdraw from the program in 2025 and build an entirely new plant. Indeed, only on Saturday, two days after the disturbing docking of Noka, Roscosmos issued a statement saying that it was continuing to study the project of a new station in low Earth orbit called the Russian Orbital Service Station. This seems very likely, because Russia does not have the budget nor is it likely to be able to quickly build a new space station.