The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Citing debris threat, NASA abruptly calls off a spacewalk

Cancellation comes two weeks after Russia blew up a dead satellite, creating a debris field that could threaten the International Space Station

In this image taken from NASA video, NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins works outside the International Space Station's European lab on Jan. 27. (NASA/AP)
3 min

NASA abruptly called off a spacewalk shortly before it was set to begin Tuesday morning after receiving a notification that debris could threaten the astronauts outside the International Space Station.

The notice came just two weeks after Russia fired a missile that destroyed a dead satellite, polluting low Earth orbit with more than 1,500 pieces of debris that forced the astronauts and cosmonauts to evacuate the space station and board their spacecraft in case they had to flee.

NASA did not say whether Russia’s satellite strike was the cause of the debris that forced the agency to cancel the spacewalk. But ever since the incident, officials across the globe have condemned it as a wantonly reckless act that could threaten not only the space station but dozens of critical satellites in orbit.

Trouble aboard the space station sent astronauts fleeing for safety for the second time this year

NASA astronauts Thomas Marshburn and Kayla Barron had been scheduled to step outside the orbiting laboratory at about 7:10 a.m. Eastern time to replace an antenna system. But on Monday evening, NASA received notification of the debris. And in a statement early Tuesday, it said: “Due to the lack of opportunity to properly assess the risk it could pose to the astronauts, teams have decided to delay the spacewalk until more information is available. The space station schedule and operations are able to easily accommodate the delay of the spacewalk.”

Later on Tuesday, the agency said that the spacewalk had been rescheduled to Thursday.

In orbit, the space station and debris travel 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, it could force the astronauts to abandon it and head for home, possibly leaving the $100 billion station without any people on board for the first time in 20 years.

After the missile strike, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called it “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.

The canceled spacewalk comes a day before Vice President Harris is set to oversee the first meeting of the National Space Council under the Biden administration. In a letter Monday, leading members of the Senate Commerce Committee, Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.); Roger Wicker (Miss.), the panel’s top Republican; John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.); and Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.), urged Harris to take action to ensure the viability of low Earth orbit.

Companies flood Earth’s orbit with satellites, but no one’s directing traffic

“This recent debris-generating catastrophe raises concerns about maintaining the long-term sustainability of the space environment,” they wrote. “We request that, at the upcoming National Space Council meeting, you advocate for aligning space sustainability priorities and activities across the Federal Government and work to develop international dialogue on norms of responsible behavior in space.”

In a separate letter Monday to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, the senators urged her to act more urgently to address the issue of space traffic management. “Given the economic and national security importance of consistent access to the space environment, this test provides a stark reminder that the United States must strengthen its capabilities to monitor and respond to space debris.”

In an email, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics, said it was not clear whether the debris from the Russia missile strike threatened the astronauts. He added: “There are plenty more [pieces] that haven’t been catalogued yet.”