Last week, the six-man crew of the International Space Station awoke to find that they’d sprung a leak, some 250 miles above earth’s surface. It was first identified via a noticeable, but not catastrophic, drop in oxygen levels within the crew compartment, but it wasn’t long before the readings were confirmed with good old fashioned observation: it was soon clear that a small, 2 millimeter in diameter, hole had been ripped through the hull of a docked Soyuz resupply capsule. Tiny as the leak was, the space station was venting oxygen and something needed to be done.
German astronaut Alexander Gerst was reportedly the first to find the leak, and according to initial reports, he promptly plugged it with his finger while a temporary solution could be thrown together, though that version of events has since been contested by Russian cosmonauts who recently took to social media to show off their more permanent repair.
That repair was itself the subject of some tension between the American commander of the International Space Station and the two Russian cosmonauts on board. Their parent command, Roscosmos, issued an order to carry out permanent repairs on the hole before the ISS Commander felt confident that it had been properly tested. Roscosmos dismissed NASA Astronaut Drew Feustel’s repeated requests to postpone the repairs until they had been adequately tested, and the two cosmonauts on board, Sergey Prokopyev and Oleg Artemyev, set about using epoxy and fabric to seal the leak. A bubble did form in the epoxy that prompted concerns about how permanent their solution had been, but it seems those early concerns have given way now that the repair has fully cured.
Sealing the hole, however, only solves half the problem. How the hole got there remains the subject of a Russian led investigation that was announced in conjunction with a dramatic revelation. The general public had been operating under the assumption that the leak had been caused by an impact with a microscopic orbital body or bit of space junk — a growing threat to all orbital operations. Instead, however, the evidence seemed to suggest that the tiny hole had been drilled from the inside out.
“We are considering all the theories. The one about a meteorite impact has been rejected because the spaceship’s hull was evidently impacted from inside. However it is too early to say definitely what happened. But, it seems to be done by a faltering hand… it is a technological error by a specialist. It was done by a human hand – there are traces of a drill sliding along the surface. We don’t reject any theories,” Dmitry Rogozin, CEO of Roscosmos, told Russian state media on Tuesday.
“It is a matter of honor for Energia Rocket and Space Corporation to find the one responsible for that, to find out whether it was an accidental defect or a deliberate spoilage and where it was done – either on Earth or in space. Now it is essential to see the reason, to learn the name of the one responsible for that. And we will find out, without fail,” he continued.
The fact that the Russians were willing to suggest that the hole may have been the result of intentional sabotage came as a surprise to many — in part because it was a rather ineffective form of sabotage if that was the case. The small hole in the Soyuz capsule never posed any significant threat to the crew of the ISS, so it’s difficult to assess what the intent behind the act was, if it was indeed intentional.
As for concerns about sabotage actually taking place aboard the ISS, Cosmonaut Sergei Prokopeva attempted to dispel concerns about that as well, saying, “As you can see, everything is calm on board; we are living in peace and friendship as always.”
You can watch a video showing the repair below (discussion is in Russian):
#НовостиИзНевесомости от космонавта Сергея Прокопьева:
«Друзья, решил снять видео, чтобы ответить на ваши многочисленные комментарии и развеять слухи. На МКС всё спокойно!» pic.twitter.com/ri7hKbe0SL
— РОСКОСМОС (@roscosmos) September 10, 2018