On Monday, the space station once again faced a menacing threat, this time from thousands of pieces of debris, scattered when Russia fired a missile that destroyed a dead satellite. By early Monday morning, the detritus of that strike was hurtling uncomfortably close to the station, like a barrage of bullets. But this time there was no time to maneuver out of the way.
Instead, mission control in Houston had to wake the astronauts to inform them that they needed to evacuate the space station and take shelter inside their spacecraft.
“Good morning. Sorry for the early call,” the ground controller said. “We were recently informed of a satellite breakup and need to have you guys start reviewing the safe haven procedure.”
Cool, if sleepy, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, a retired Army colonel and an Iraq War veteran, replied calmly, “Sounds good. Thanks for the heads-up.”
The astronauts scrambled into their spacesuits, got into their spacecraft and waited for the worst.
On orbit, the space station and the debris were traveling at about 17,500 mph. At that speed, even a small piece of debris can cause enormous damage. If the debris hit and breached the hull of the station, they were ready abandon it and head for home, possibly leaving the $100 billion station without any astronauts on board for the first time in 20 years.
Vande Hei sheltered with his crewmates, two Russian cosmonauts, Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, while the members of NASA’s Crew-3 mission huddled in their SpaceX Dragon capsule.
Thankfully the debris missed, and the seven space travelers — four Americans, two Russians and a German — reentered the station, ready to resume their work on the orbiting laboratory.
But the problems will remain for years, said Dan Ceperley, the founder and CEO of LeoLabs, a California-based company that tracks debris for satellite companies. The debris field stretches across more than a third of the globe, and over the weeks and months to come it will encompass the entire Earth, creating what he called a “debris belt.” As the debris comes down toward Earth, much of it will pass through the altitude used not only by the International Space Station but also the one being assembled by China.
“I think we’re going to be putting collision alerts out through 2030,” he said.
On the ground, tensions between the United States and Russia flared. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called the strike “outrageous” and “unconscionable,” and said it was “inexplicable” that the Russians would do such a “reckless” and “dangerous” act that endangered the lives of not only Americans on the station but Russians, as well.
On Tuesday, Russia’s Defense Ministry confirmed carrying out a test that destroyed a dead satellite that had been in orbit since 1982. But it maintained that the debris field it created never posed a threat to the space station. “The U.S. knows for certain that the resulting fragments, in terms of test time and orbital parameters, did not and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.S. claim “that Russia poses risks to activities for the peaceful use of outer space is, to say the least, hypocrisy.”
The strike created a cloud of more than 1,500 pieces of debris that can be tracked by U.S. technology, as well as hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces. They will stay in orbit for years to come, continuing to threaten not just the International Space Station but the one China is assembling, as well, in addition to hundreds of commercial and government satellites in low Earth orbit.
The astronauts got a reminder of how pernicious — and enduring — orbital debris can be just last week. Hours before the Crew-3 astronauts lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the station had to maneuver to avoid a piece of debris left over from 2007, when China hit a dead weather satellite with a missile, creating a debris field of more than 3,000 objects. Last year, the space station had to move at least three times to dodge debris, and sometimes it does get hit, such as the time something collided with the station and cracked a window.
In July, the thrusters of a newly installed Russian module fired unexpectedly, sending the station on a wild ride. It spun one and a half times and ended up upside down before crews could right the football-field-size ship. But in the meantime, the crews were evacuated into their spacecraft in case they needed to abandon the station.
“The ground teams really, really worked hard to make sure we were in the safest posture possible,” NASA astronaut R. Shane Kimbrough said recently. “We were actually in the Dragon capsule in case something really bad did happen. We were ready to go and undock if that was necessary. Of course it wasn’t, thankfully.”
NASA said the crew was never in danger, but afterward Zebulon Scoville, a NASA flight director, wrote on Twitter he had never “had to declare a space craft emergency until now” and that he had never “been so happy to see all solar arrays + radiators still attached.”
Then, last month, the station was again tilted out of position during the test firing of the thrusters of a Russia spacecraft that was attached to the station. The test was supposed to come to an end, but the thruster kept firing unexpectedly, NASA officials said.
Ground crews struggled to get control, as crews in Houston and Russia issued instructions and warnings to the astronauts on board the station about how, yet again, the station was being forced off course. It took some 30 minutes for flight controllers to regain control.
Nelson said that a delegation of top NASA officials happened to be in Russia this week to meet with Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency. The missile strike was expected to come up, but a NASA spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment about what was discussed.
Despite the growing geopolitical tension, the astronauts on board the station continue their work, getting along even while their superiors on the ground cannot. That’s the way it’s always been.
Bill Shepherd, a U.S. Navy SEAL, and Yuri Gidzenko, a fighter pilot from the Soviet Union’s air force, were among the first crew to live on the space station. During the Cold War, they had been trained to kill each other, but early on their tour in space they found themselves by the window, marveling at the Earth below.
When they passed over one of Gidzenko’s military posts, he pointed it out to Shepherd. “I was stationed here,” Shepherd recalled him saying during a recent virtual reunion to commemorate the 20th anniversary.
The world turned, and “half an orbit later,” it was Shepherd’s turn: “I was a Navy SEAL, and we were here, here and here.”