Latest Russian space station incident reveals bigger issues

Last Thursday on Russian space station’s large new module, Nauka, finally docked with the International Space Station after several technical issues en route to the orbiting laboratory. However, the problems did not end there. About three hours after reaching the station, Nauka began firing his propulsion thrusters, hack the space station.

This led NASA Mission Control in Houston to initiate “loss of attitude control” procedures aboard the station, an eventuality for which astronauts and flight controllers train. Then, in concert with flight controllers in Moscow, the teams ordered the station to fire its thrusters at the Russian segment of the space station, as well as a Progress refueling vehicle attached to the laboratory. These combined actions kept the station from collapsing too violently until Nauka ran out of its main fuel supply.

In the aftermath of the near miss, NASA hastily called a press conference and introduced key figures to the media, including Chief Human Spaceflight Kathy Lueders and Chief of the International Space Station Program Joel. Montalbano. Both said NASA and Russian space company Roscosmos had the situation under control and were downplaying the overall risk to the station and the astronauts on board.

However, they reported many questions about the technical issues to Roscosmos, who offered mixed messages. A senior Roscosmos official, former cosmonaut Vladimir Soloviev, said in an official statement, “Due to a short-term software failure, a direct command was mistakenly implemented to turn on the module motors for removal, resulting in some change in the orientation of the complex as a whole. “

This gives the impression that the problem is a software error. But later Roscosmos leader Dmitry Rogozin admitted that someone on the pitch could have been wrong. “Everything was going well, but there was a human factor,” he told a Russian publication, as reported by Reuters. “There was some euphoria (after the successful docking), everyone relaxed.”

Now that the immediate danger has passed, the most pressing concerns are that this has happened and what it could mean for Russia’s continued participation in the International Space Station program. For NASA, the main goal is to maintain a human presence in low Earth orbit, which means piloting the station for the remainder of the 2020s.

Given the likelihood of firing Nauka’s errant thruster involving human error, it would be at least the third major problem in less than three years resulting from poor quality work. In October 2018, the launch of Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague was halted after the Soyuz booster failed, and the crew had to make an emergency return to Earth. A subsequent investigation found that the side thruster had been poorly coupled to the central stage of the Soyuz rocket.

At around the same time, Russia announced that there was a small hole in another Soyuz vehicle, already attached to the International Space Station. “We are able to reduce the cause to a technological error of a technician” Rogozin said of the problem.

These technical errors occurred because Roscosmos had difficulty paying a living wage to its engineers and technicians. And now the country’s space budget faces additional pressure, as NASA no longer needs to buy Soyuz seats for its astronauts to get to the International Space Station, thanks to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle and, hopefully soon, at the Boeing Starliner.

Despite all of this, NASA has remained publicly supportive of Russia and its space program. And he must be relieved that, despite his countless problems getting to the space station, Nauka is now there and functional. This is important because it probable cements Russian participation in the space station for the remainder of this decade.

There is no guarantee of this. In recent months, Russian officials have started to say that existing Roscosmos hardware in orbit, much of which is over two decades old, is aging beyond repair. Russians also suggested they could withdraw from the program in 2025 and build a brand new station. Indeed, just on Saturday, two days after Nauka’s troublesome docking, Roscosmos released a statement saying he was pursue a study of a new low Earth orbit station project called Russian Orbital Service Station. It seems very likely, as Russia neither has the budget nor probably the capacity to build a new space station quickly.

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