American and Russian astronauts were trapped in space waiting after spacecraft suffered damage
BREVARD, Fla. – NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin face an extension of their stay aboard the International Space Station by several months and will need another ride home after their Russian MS-22 Soyuz spacecraft suffered a leak in the last month.
The trio would use that spacecraft to return to Earth in March. On Wednesday, NASA and Russian space officials revealed a plan to launch an empty Soyuz capsule to the ISS and return them instead. That means the three men will spend several more months on the ISS.
During a briefing with reporters, NASA’s International Space Station program manager Joel Montalbano said NASA is not considering the advance of the MS-23 Soyuz to perform a rescue mission. “We don’t call it a rescue Soyuz,” Montalbano said. “At this point, the crew is safely aboard the space station.”
“I call it a replacement Soyuz,” he said. “The crew does not have to come home immediately today.”
Extended space stay
Initially slated to fly the next rotation of Russian cosmonauts to the station in mid-March, the MS-23 Soyuz spacecraft will now be redesignated to launch as an empty lifeboat to bring the MS-22 crew home later this year . The empty spacecraft will launch on February 20 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Flying the MS-23 crew aloft as previously planned would have left the ISS in the same situation, with more people on board than available seats on functioning spacecraft to evacuate back to Earth in the unlikely event of a catastrophe.
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That means Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin will have to extend their stay in space until September or until Roscosmos can build another Soyuz spacecraft to launch its next rotation of crew members, who are now stuck longer than expected.
According to Montalbano, the space station remains safe and the crew members are healthy enough to remain in space while this plan plays out.
“They’re willing to stay until the September launch date, if that’s the case,” Montalbano said. “If that launch date moves forward sooner, they’re willing to come home earlier.”
He jokingly said, “Maybe I should find some more ice cream to reward them.”
“The great thing about our crews is that they are willing to help wherever we ask,” he said. “They’re ready to deal with whatever decision we give them.”
A Russian space leak
The MS-22 Russian Soyuz spacecraft that carried Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin to the station in September leaked on Dec. 14. preparing for a spacewalk. As a precaution to avoid exposure to the leaking substance, the spacewalk was canceled.
On Dec. 18, NASA used the station’s robotic arm, Canadarm2, to provide images and conduct an additional external inspection of the damaged spacecraft.
After a joint investigation conducted by NASA and Roscosmos, the space agencies are convinced that the damage was caused by a micrometeoroid impact that resulted in a hole about a millimeter in diameter in the coolant loop.
While the leak was determined to pose no direct threat to the station or crew, it left the MS-22 Soyuz spacecraft unable to return the trio of astronauts safely home.
The damaged coolant loop allowed the temperature and humidity in the cabin of the Soyuz spacecraft to skyrocket, making for a very uncomfortable and claustrophobic return trip home, which typically took about six hours.
The path forward
Instead of returning the crew as expected, about two weeks after the replacement MS-23 Soyuz docks at the station, the damaged MS-22 spacecraft will be fitted out as a cargo transporter. NASA and Roscosmos plan to collect data on cabin conditions as the spacecraft returns for a landing in Kazakhstan in mid-to-late March.
“On the returning Soyuz, we’ll take some temperature readings to gauge how the vehicle is doing in this scenario, so that if we ever have a need in the future, we’ll have some additional data,” Montalbano said. “We are going to use this vehicle fully until it lands back on Earth.”
Sergei Krikalev, director of Roscosmos manned space flight, also told reporters on Wednesday, “At the moment we have calculations and thermal scenarios, but we want to prove this calculation with the result (in) real time.”
Going forward, this will most likely impact the busy schedule of crew and cargo missions to the station for the rest of this year. How it affects specific mission launch dates, such as NASA’s next manned mission, SpaceX’s Crew-6, which was scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in mid-February, has yet to be fully determined.
“We’re going to take the next few weeks to sort of flesh out the plan,” Montalbano said. The shift is expected to affect at least four crewed missions and two resupply missions to the station through September.
“Putting everything out is what we’re going to plan now. We need a few more weeks to work that all out,” said Montalbano.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: The astronaut crew needs a new Russian spacecraft to get home after damage
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