If you happened to tune into NASA TV on December 11th, you’d have been treated to a sight perhaps best described as “unprecedented”: Russian cosmonauts roughly cutting away the thermal insulation of a docked Soyuz spacecraft with a knife and makeshift pair of shears. Working in a cloud of material ripped loose during the highly unusual procedure, cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Prokopyev were effectively carving out their own unique place in space history. Their mission was to investigate the external side of the suspicious hole in the Soyuz MS-09 capsule which caused a loss of air pressure on the International Space Station earlier in the year.
That astronauts don’t generally climb out the hatch and use a knife to hack away at the outside of their spacecraft probably goes without saying. Such an event has never happened before, and while nobody can predict the future, odds are it’s not something we’re likely to see again. Keep in mind that this wasn’t some test capsule or a derelict, but a vehicle slated to return three human occupants to Earth in a matter of days. Cutting open a spacecraft in which human lives will shortly be entrusted is not a risk taken likely, and shows how truly desperate the Russian space agency Roscosmos is to find out just who or what put a hole in the side of one of their spacecraft.
Close inspection from the inside of the spacecraft confirmed the hole wasn’t made by an impact with a micrometeorite or tiny piece of space junk as was originally assumed. It appears to have been made with a drill, which really only allows for two possible scenarios: intentional sabotage or a mistake and subsequent cover-up. In either event, a truly heinous crime has been committed and those responsible must be found. As luck would have it the slow leak of air pressure was detected early and the hole was patched before any damage was done, but what if it hadn’t?
Even if you don’t consider yourself an armchair astronaut, it’s pretty clear that a spacecraft’s external insulation and shielding isn’t designed to be removed while in space, much less hacked at with improvised tools by a couple of spacewalking comrades. As a general rule, if the designer thought it was important enough to protect a part of the vehicle with multiple levels of thermal and micrometeorite protection, it’s probably not a great idea to take it off while the craft is still in operation.
That being said, the area being investigated by Kononenko and Prokopyev is on one of the few components of the Soyuz spacecraft which isn’t necessary for the craft to return to Earth. In fact, it’s actually a deterrent to the capsule’s return: if it doesn’t get jettisoned the Soyuz capsule won’t be able to slow down to safe landing speed since the added weight would exceed the capability of the main parachutes.
The hole is located in the most forward section of the craft, known as the “Orbital Module”, which houses ancillary systems such as the docking equipment and crew lavatory. A mission which somehow lost access to the Orbital Module would be potentially unpleasant and likely deemed a failure, but the crew wouldn’t be in immediate danger and could still return to Earth which is ultimately the most important thing. On ascent it’s used as a storage area for any payload being brought to the International Space Station, but once the craft has undocked from the Station it’s essentially dead weight.
During the Mir missions in the late 1980’s, the Orbital Module was actually jettisoned much earlier to reduce the vehicle’s mass and therefore the amount of propellant required to perform the retry burn. But on the Soyuz TM-5 mission this lead to a troubling situation in which the vehicle was unable to deorbit when planned but had already jettisoned the Orbital Module. While the crew eventually landed safely, the 24 hour period they spent without a lavatory or a way to dock with the Mir station was an unpleasant experience to say the least. Since then, the Orbital Module is not jettisoned from the Soyuz until the deorbit burn has already been performed and the vehicle is past the point of no return.
A Difficult Commute
Ultimately the danger posed to the Soyuz crew by opening up the outer skin of the Orbital Module was deemed minimal, since they wouldn’t be keeping it around for long anyway. In light of the potential gains, namely collecting evidence which may allow Roscosmos to determine how or when the hole in the craft was made, it was a calculated risk worth taking. But deciding to go ahead with the impromptu operation was the easy part, somebody still had to climb out there and do it.
Any time an astronaut leaves the relatively safe confines of their craft and goes out the hatch, there’s an element of risk. But in this case the problem was compounded by the fact that the Soyuz was never meant to be serviced from the outside. Unlike on the Space Station itself, there’s no convenient hand holds or tie off points for the astronauts to use. That meant the only way to reach the Orbital Module was to use an extendable boom. When attached to the end, the crew member can be moved into position by a colleague and can work in an area that doesn’t have any tie off points.
Interestingly, such a maneuver is not without precedent. A similar method was used in 2005 when astronaut Steve Robinson was sent out to repair the heat shield of Space Shuttle Discovery. As the bottom of the Shuttle was perfectly smooth, he had to be moved into position on the end of the Shuttle’s robotic arm. Though in this case the operation was made quite a bit easier by the fact that the Soyuz being worked on was securely docked to the station, and not free floating as in the case of Discovery.
While they had some initial difficulty finding the tiny 2 mm diameter hole, Kononenko and Prokopyev expanded their search area a bit and were eventually able to take close-up photographs of the mysterious wound and even collect some samples which will be returned to Roscomos for analysis. As this is an active investigation with potentially criminal implications, little has been said about what the men found during their examination. But the fact that the external insulation and shielding of the Soyuz was intact is more proof that the hole was not put there by any external means.
As of this writing, Soyuz MS-09 has made a successful landing in the steppes of Kazakhstan; with crew members Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Alexander Gerst, and Sergey Prokopyev himself all in good health after 197 days in space. The safe return of the multinational crew is what’s ultimately most important, but the questions about what happened to MS-09 still need answers. A space capsule apparently damaged by human hands and the failure of the MS-10 booster due to an improperly installed sensor have put the beleaguered Russian space industry in an exceptionally poor light, just months before SpaceX and Boeing are set to test their crewed spacecraft. Unless the blatant issues in production and quality assurance can be sorted out, the iconic Soyuz spacecraft may soon find itself pushed to the wayside over 50 years after its first flight.