NASA Mulls Using SpaceX to Rescue Astronauts After Russia’s Space Station Leak
On December 15, NASA and its astronauts were faced with a scary situation when a Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked at the International Space Station caused a massive coolant leak just before it was about to begin a spacewalk. by a pair of Russian cosmonauts. The crew on board is safe and not in any immediate danger, but two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut were supposed to use the Soyuz vehicle to return to Earth early next year. With the spacecraft’s status in limbo, NASA and Roscosmos (Russia’s space agency) have been trying to figure out their options for how to move forward.
To that end, NASA is considering a contingency plan: using a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission to effectively rescue stranded astronauts in the coming months.
“International Space Station teams continue to meet regarding the external leak of the Soyuz MS-22 cooling loop,” a NASA spokesperson told The Daily Beast in an emailed statement. “NASA and Roscosmos will continue to consider options together before making a final decision on how to safely bring the crew home. The Expedition 68 crew remains in good condition, performing maintenance and research activities.
“In addition, we have asked SpaceX some questions about their ability to return additional crew members to Dragon if necessary, but that is not our primary focus at this time.”
SpaceX did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
It’s still unclear what a SpaceX mission would entail. A Crew Dragon spacecraft (named Endeavor) is already docked at the ISS, and more seats could theoretically be added to that mission when it’s supposed to return to Earth next year. But this mission is already filled with four people: NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina.
Another option would be for NASA to prioritize a new SpaceX Crew Dragon launch to the ISS specifically to pick up the three crew members who were supposed to return to the Soyuz: NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dimitri Petelin.
The loss of coolant means the current Soyuz capsule is seeing huge temperature increases. NASA has said the capsule’s temperatures remain “within acceptable limits” and it is cooling with vented air flowing through an open hatch to the rest of the ISS. But it seems almost impossible to imagine that the capsule could still be used to transport people to Earth.
The cause of the Soyuz leak remains unknown. An investigation found a hole in the outside of the radiator, which may have been caused by a micrometeor or a small piece of orbital debris. A hardware failure could also be to blame – which would only add more scrutiny to Roscosmos’ growing breakdowns in space.