On December 15, NASA and its astronauts encountered a frightening situation when A.J The Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked at the International Space Station, resulting in a coolant leak, shortly before the start of a spacewalk by a pair of Russian cosmonauts. The crew on board is safe and not in immediate danger, but two astronauts and one NASA cosmonaut were supposed to use the Soyuz spacecraft to return to Earth early next year. With the spacecraft in limbo, NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, are trying to work out their options for how to proceed.
To that end, NASA is considering one contingency plan: using the SpaceX Crew Dragon mission to effectively rescue stranded astronauts in the coming months.
“The International Space Station teams continue to meet regarding the Soyuz MS-22 outer cooling loop leak,” a NASA spokesperson told The Daily Beast in an emailed statement. NASA and Roscosmos will continue to review options together before making a final decision on how to safely bring the crew home. Expedition 68’s crew is still in good shape, doing maintenance and research work.
“In addition, we’ve asked SpaceX some questions about their ability to return additional crew members on Dragon if needed, but that’s not our primary focus at this time.”
SpaceX did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
It is not yet clear what exactly the SpaceX mission will entail. The Crew Dragon spacecraft (named Endeavor) has already docked at the International Space Station, and in theory more seats could be added to that mission when it is supposed to return to Earth next year. But this mission is already packed with four people: NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Kasada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, and Roscosmos astronaut Anna Kikina.
Another option would be for NASA to prioritize launching the new SpaceX Crew Dragon to the International Space Station specifically to pick up the three crew members who were supposed to return to the Soyuz: NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petlin.
The loss of coolant means that the current Soyuz capsule is experiencing significant temperature rises. NASA said the capsule’s temperatures remain “within acceptable limits,” and it is cooled by a ventilated airflow allowed from the open hatch to the rest of the International Space Station. But it seems almost impossible to imagine that the capsule could be used to bring humans back to Earth.
The cause of the Soyuz leak is still unknown. The investigation found a hole on the outside of the cooler, which may have been caused by a micrometeorite or a small piece of orbital debris. It could also be caused by a hardware malfunction – which will only lead to further scrutiny Roscosmos’ growing space errors.
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