On Tuesday, Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Sergei Prokopyev took an unprecedented spacewalk outside the International Space Station over the course of nearly eight hours.
The two Russians spent about three hours over the station setting up a workstation from which to stabilize themselves and cut into a Soyuz spacecraft attached to the station. Then with an assortment of tools, including a knife and scissors, they tore through a wide strip of insulation protecting the spacecraft’s orbital module.
The whole procedure was absolutely immersive, as it’s not every day you see a person in space with a knife cutting through several inches of insulation. As the cosmonauts took turns working on the insulation, bits of Mylar and other shredded material drifted away from the workplace like a dirty blizzard. (Since the station is at a relatively low altitude, these low-mass, high-resistance materials should be drawn down into Earth’s atmosphere and burn, posing no threat to spaceflight activities).
Kononenko and Prokopyev worked on the insulation for a few hours, sometimes getting irritated. A Russian translator, speaking on NASA TV, shared shocking comments between the two cosmonauts and the Roscosmos mission control, just north of Moscow. “Please be careful, my hand is there,” the translator would say. And, “Be careful not to cut the cable.” Mission control repeatedly urged the cosmonauts to take a break. It was unnerving to watch the cosmonauts wield the blade in such a seemingly casual manner, so close to their pressurized spacesuits.
Finding the Hole
Finally, the crew cut the insulation into a thin shield of rubble, and after pulling it away, they arrived at the hull of the Soyuz vehicle itself. They were looking for the outside location of a leak in the Soyuz spacecraft that was discovered on Aug. 30, about two months after the vehicle flew three crew members to the station. Using several layers of epoxy resin, astronauts on the space station sealed the slow leak — from a tiny hole a few millimeters wide — a day after its discovery. They were never in great danger, but the mystery of how the leak started has caused much intrigue.
Using small scissors — an extremely delicate process with the clunky gloves of his spacesuit — Kononenko attempted to sample the exterior of the spill, which was clearly visible in live television video footage. Presumably, taking high-definition images and GoPro video of the outside of the spill and collecting samples of resin or other material will help the Russians determine what initially caused the hole.
This was a murky matter for both NASA and the Russian space agency. While Roscosmos leader Dmitry Rogozin has been quite diplomatic about the leak on the global stage, there are widespread rumors in Russia that a NASA astronaut may have drilled into space through the Soyuz because he or she wanted to go home early.
This is clearly nonsense, and the much more likely story is that there was an accident at a Russian manufacturing facility, where a technician discovered the drilling flaw and covered the hole with glue. This would have prevented the problem from being detected during a vacuum test. However, this temporary patch could fail a few months later after prolonged exposure in space.
On Wednesday, Rogozin thanked the cosmonauts for their hard and ultimately successful work. “I want to congratulate you on successfully completing the mission,” he said. “The spacewalk itself, I would say, was unprecedented in terms of complexity and risk. You handled it with tremendous success.”
The samples collected, Rogozin said, were “extremely important in completing all investigation procedures and determining the causes of damage to the spacecraft.” They will soon be analyzed by engineers on Earth.
This could happen as early as next week, when this Soyuz spacecraft leaves the station with Prokopyev at the head and also aboard German astronaut Alexander Gerst along with NASA’s Serena Auñón chancellor. On Wednesday, the Soyuz will move a safe distance from the station and perform a deorbit burn that will last about 4 minutes and 30 seconds, slowing the spacecraft and pushing it into Earth’s atmosphere.
The orbital module (where the leak occurred) and the descent module are then pyrotechnically separated from the descent module, which will turn its heat shield into Earth’s atmosphere and return the crew and their samples to Earth.
List image by NASA