As you may recall, a low pressure leak occurred aboard the International Space Station in late August. In the end, crews traced the leak to the orbital module of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that arrived at the station in June. After the problem was traced to what appears to be a manufacturing defect, the head of the Russian space program essentially summoned the head of whoever made the mistake.
Now, however, something entirely new is happening in Russia. A growing body of Russian publications has put forward an absurd new theory: that a NASA astronaut deliberately caused the leak on board the station to force the evacuation of a sick crew member. According to Robinson Mitchell, who translates Russian space stories for Ars, the story has spread like wildfire in the past 24 hours.
One of the most prominent articles was published Wednesday in Kommersant, stating that Russian investigators are vigorously pursuing claims that Americans may have deliberately damaged the Soyuz. Publicly, Roscosmos leader Dmitry Rogozin said of Russia’s investigation into the leak: “The results we have received do not give us an objective picture. The situation is much more complex than we previously thought.”
Privately, however, several space agency sources leak much juicier comments to the Russian media. “Our Soyuz is located next to the Rassvet (Dawn) module, right next to the hatch to the US part of the station,” a source said. Kommersant. “Access to our ship is only possible with the permission of our commander, but we cannot rule out unauthorized access by the Americans.”
The working theory goes something like this: One of the US crew members — currently there are three aboard the station: Commander Drew Feustel, Ricky Arnold and Serena M. Auñón Chancellor — became ill sometime in August. Leaving the station would have required the departure of three astronauts and cosmonauts, as a Soyuz cannot leave without a full crew, as it would not leave enough seats for an emergency evacuation. The motive for the sabotage seems to be that NASA refused to pay the full cost of a new Soyuz, probably about $85 million.
So a NASA astronaut drilled a hole in the orbital module of one of the Soyuz spacecraft to force the evacuation but not have to pay the cost of an extra Soyuz to fly to the station. This wouldn’t have been a big problem for reentry, as the orbital module is discarded before the spacecraft enters the atmosphere. As proof of this, Russian sources say there were several “drill tracks” around the site of the leak, suggesting someone is drilling without support in microgravity.
According to the reports, this “Version B” theory is now a priority investigation by a special commission set up by Roscosmos after the leak. The commission reportedly searched for US video footage aboard the station and information about the medical condition of the current crew members.
Unfortunately, for medical privacy reasons, the Russians do not anticipate cooperation. One of Kommersant’s sources noted, “But if they don’t provide the information, additional questions about their involvement in the incident would be redundant.”
ISS commander strongly denies
NASA officials have declined to make public comments on the matter because they don’t want to be drawn into the story. However, in a space-to-ground interview with ABC News on Tuesday, NASA astronaut who pilots the station, Drew Feustel, strongly denied the idea that he or any other crew member could have caused this problem. “I can say unequivocally that the crew had nothing to do with this in orbit without a shadow of a doubt, and I actually find it a shame and a little embarrassing that someone is wasting time talking about something that involved the crew was,” said Feustel.
The theory of a NASA astronaut or someone aboard the station taking a drill to pierce the atmosphere of the orbiting laboratory is ridiculous. This appears to be some sort of play by Rogozin to divert public attention (and that of his boss, Vladimir Putin) from the fact that Russia’s space program is no longer what it once was. The political ramifications of this will be fascinating to watch as rarely have we seen such a dispute between Roscomos and NASA, who generally have an excellent working relationship.