NASA evaluates use of SpaceX to rescue astronauts after escape from Russian space station


On December 15, NASA and its astronauts were faced with a frightening situation when a Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station caused a massive coolant leak, just before a pair of Russian cosmonauts embarked on a spacewalk. The crew on board are safe and in no immediate danger, but two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut were due to use the Soyuz vehicle to return to Earth early next year. With the state of the spacecraft in limbo, NASA and Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) have been trying to figure out their options on how to move forward.

To that end, NASA is evaluating a contingency plan: use a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission to effectively rescue stranded astronauts over the next few months.

“Teams from the International Space Station continue to meet over the leak of Soyuz MS-22’s external cooling loop,” a NASA spokesperson told The Daily Beast in an emailed statement. “NASA and Roscosmos will continue to review options together before making a final decision on how to safely return the crew home. The Expedition 68 crew remain in good shape, performing maintenance and research.

“We’ve also asked SpaceX a few questions about their ability to bring other crew members back to Dragon if needed, but that’s not our primary focus at this time.”

SpaceX did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.

Russian spacecraft makes massive leak on ISS

It’s still unclear exactly what a SpaceX mission would entail. A Crew Dragon spacecraft (called Endeavor) is already docked with the ISS, and more places could theoretically be added to that mission when it’s due to return to Earth next year. But that mission is already occupied by 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 due to return to Soyuz: NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dimitri Petlin.

Inside the dangerous consequences of Russia’s space failures

The loss of coolant means that the current Soyuz capsule is experiencing huge temperature spikes. NASA said temperatures in the capsule remain “within acceptable limits” and it is cooled with vented airflow allowed from a hatch open to the rest of the ISS. But it seems almost impossible to imagine that the capsule could still be used to bring humans back to Earth.

The cause of the Soyuz loss remains unknown. An investigation found a hole in the radiator’s exterior, which may have been caused by a micrometeoroid or a tiny piece of orbital debris. A hardware failure could also be to blame, which would only add more scrutiny to Roscosmos’ growing spatial errors.

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