On August 30, 2018, there was a widely reported incident on board the International Space Station (the ISS). A slight loss of cabin pressure on board the station was found to be caused by a 2mm wide hole that was in the hull of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft which was docked with the ISS at the time. After a failed launch attempt later in the fall, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev finally succeeded in reaching the ISS to conduct an intensive inspection of the hole. His conclusion is that it was not the result of a micrometeoroid impact, but that it was drilled from inside the crew module.
This statement was woefully misrepresented by several news media outlets, which adjusted their headlines and ledes to suggest that someone on board the ISS drilled the hole while the station was in flight. The sensationalist cries of “sabotage!!” can be laid aside, however, as there is no conclusive evidence that anything like this happened. The British tabloids like The Daily Mail and The Sun mishandled the article with headlines like The Sun’s “Was it sabotage? Russian Cosmonaut insists mysterious hole in the ISS WAS drilled from inside the space station.”
Surprisingly even the reputable magazine Popular Mechanics initially got aspects of the report wrong, saying that they had incorrectly stated that the Soyuz module had been landed on Earth for examination.
So what is the true story?
Cosmonaut Sergei Prokopyev was one of two members of the ISS crew who went on a spacewalk a few weeks ago to investigate the hole from the outside. Over the course of several hours, Prokopyev and his colleague Oleg Kononenko cut into the outer shell of the Soyuz spacecraft where the hole was found, collected samples, and took photos of the entry—or exit—hole on the outside of the craft.
According to Prokopyev, whatever made the hole started on the inside of the spacecraft. Because there’s only the one hole, that rules out a micrometeorite or some natural cause. Instead, the only possible explanation seems to be that someone drilled the hole, either accidentally or on purpose.
This is a particular concern for Roscosmos because the hole was found on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked to the station. If this whole thing is the result of deliberate sabotage, it could damage the international image of Roscosmos and the Russian space program.
The hole was apparently drilled from inside the module. But where the module was when this happened is not known, and of course, when it happened is also not known.
The rate of leakage of air was slow – it would have taken 18 days for all the air to have been evacuated from the station, which is quite large.
However, the crux of the story is that there should not be any holes in spacefaring equipment, and so both the origin and reason for its existence are under scrutiny.
Due to the difficult political relationship between the US and Russia, a speculative suggestion offered early on by Roscosmos’ head Dmitry Rogozin that someone created the hole deliberately, perhaps even a crew member on board the space station, caused a furor that was absent of logic, like most American “Russia did it!” allegations have been over the last two years.
First, as a way to kill astronauts, an 18-day long leak takes at least six or seven days before the crew would be physically even affected by atmosphere loss, let alone impaired, but this is a virtually impossible situation to sneak on a crew when all life support systems on a spacefaring craft are meticulously monitored. So, such an act of sabotage is just stupid.
Secondly, according to Popular Science’s report on this incident, it is extremely hard to drill holes in microgravity, as the torque of the drill and the absence of weight would require an astronaut to be in some sort of restraints or for the drill to have a mechanism to absorb the torque without spinning the astronaut. This claim may be debatable as to how easy it really is to do this, but it is not like drilling a hole on Earth, and further, the astronauts on the ISS run a pretty tight work schedule, and an astronaut sneaking a drill around is likely to be noticed.
The most likely answer is that someone on the ground inadvertently or maybe deliberately, drilled the hole – though the way the hole actually appears suggests that although it is man-made, it does not appear to be intentionally made. That means that someone made a mistake, but then the question becomes: how did this pass inspection prior to launch? A hole in the ascent phase of a spaceflight probably would not cause a problem, as the spacecraft moves at its highest speeds well out of the atmosphere.
But re-entry is another matter, and Russia has already borne the loss of astronauts in this way. Space.com tells the story:
The Soviet space program also suffered the first, and so-far only, deaths in space in 1971, when cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, Vladislav Volkov died while returning to Earth from the Salyut 1 space station. Their Soyuz 11 craft performed a textbook-perfect landing in 1971. So recovery teams were appalled to find the three-man crew sitting dead in their couches, with dark-blue splotches on their faces and blood dripping from their ears and noses.
An investigation showed that a breathing ventilation valve had ruptured, asphyxiating the cosmonauts. The resulting drop in pressure also exposed the crew to the vacuum of space — the only human beings to ever experience such a fate. They died within seconds of the rupture, which occurred at 168 kilometers (104 miles), making them the only human beings to die in space. Since the capsule ran an automatic re-entry program, the craft could land without living pilots.
This memory doubtless lives with the Russian program and indeed, all spacefarers are beyond politics, so this is important to everyone.
The Russian government is very concerned about getting this problem resolved, and as the Russian spacecraft are the only game in town for anyone who wants to go to the ISS, it is a serious international concern.