The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia to send replacement craft to retrieve crew from space station

The Soyuz capsule that carried two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut to the station was damaged, possibly by a micrometeoroid

Russian cosmonauts Dmitri Petelin, left, and Sergey Prokopyev, center, and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sept. 21 before their departure for the International Space Station. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)
4 min

Russia plans to send a backup spacecraft to the International Space Station to retrieve three crew members whose Soyuz capsule was damaged, possibly by a micrometeoroid, Russia and NASA officials said Wednesday.

The replacement craft, which will have no crew aboard, is to be launched Feb. 20 to pick up Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin as well as NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, who all arrived at the station in September.

On Dec. 14, as the cosmonauts were preparing to leave the station’s airlock to perform a spacewalk, ground controllers noticed a leak of coolant spraying uncontrollably into space. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, immediately canceled the spacewalk and determined that the leak was coming from a tiny hole in an external cooling line, about one millimeter wide. The coolant is used to keep the capsule at a comfortable temperature.

Since then, Roscosmos, in cooperation with NASA, had been trying to determine whether the spacecraft was fit to fly the crew home or if the agency needed to send up a rescue craft. The teams determined that without the coolant, temperatures inside the spacecraft could exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The high temperature combined with humidity could affect the spacecraft’s computing systems and also make the atmosphere uncomfortable for the crew.

After the new spacecraft arrives at the station, Roscosmos plans to fly, without crew members, the damaged Soyuz back to Earth, where it will be retrieved and inspected.

NASA and Roscosmos have said that the crew members on the station are not in danger and that they continued to conduct research and science experiments, including growing tomatoes, while crews on the ground developed a solution for the problem. Seven people are aboard the station: the three who flew on the Soyuz craft in September and four who flew to the station in October on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which also is docked at the station.

In a call with reporters Wednesday, NASA’s space station program manager, Joel Montalbano, sought to downplay the severity of the issue, saying there is “no immediate need for the crew to come home today.”

Speaking from Moscow, where he was involved in meetings with Roscosmos officials, Montalbano said NASA was not “calling it a rescue Soyuz. … I’m calling it a replacement Soyuz.”

Sergei Krikalev, executive director of Roscosmos’s human spaceflight programs, said the agencies prepare for this sort of situation, knowing they are extremely rare. “This is a scenario we envision, and now we are basically following the procedure,” he said.

Krikalev said it was “the first time I remember” having to send a replacement spacecraft to the station. “We’ve never had the real need to do this” he said.

NASA and Roscosmos are examining options in the event of an emergency that would require the crews to evacuate the station before the rescue Soyuz arrives. The Soyuz crew could still board its spacecraft and use it as a lifeboat, without returning to Earth’s atmosphere. It also might be possible to fit an additional crew member in the SpaceX Dragon capsule.

The plan now would involve crews going “in your respective vehicles today,” Montalbano said. “But, in parallel, we have been talking to SpaceX and looking at an option of what we can do with the SpaceX vehicle.”

He said NASA officials concurred with Roscosmos’s view that the damage to the Soyuz vehicle docked at the space station was probably caused by a micrometeoroid. He said there was nothing abnormal “in the manufacturing of this vehicle.” Earth’s orbit also has been flooded with debris from a Russian missile strike on a dead satellite in 2021 that, at the time, required crews on the space station to shelter in their spacecraft.

Overall, Montalbano said, NASA and Roscosmos “have worked extremely well together, both the technical teams and the management team. It is a true testament to the partnership.”

With a fresh Soyuz at the station, Krikalev said, the three-member crew’s mission would be extended by a number of months. It’s not clear, though, how the launch of the replacement vehicle would affect NASA’s schedule. For now, SpaceX is expected to fly another crew of astronauts to the station in February. “We’ll need a couple more weeks before we’re ready to define a bunch of new launch dates,” Montalbano said.

Crew members on the space station were in good spirits and continuing to go about their business, he said. But he added: “I may have to fly some more ice cream up to reward them.”