Roscosmos and NASA flight controllers avoided a catastrophe on Thursday when a large Russian spacecraft docked with the International Space Station. It began to fire its thrusters inadvertently.
At 8:30 AM CT (13:30 UTC), the Russian "Nauka” module connected to the space station. This is Houston's local time, where NASA's Mission Control is located. Russian cosmonauts on the station started to prepare to open the hatches to Nauka. However, Nauka suddenly began to fire its movement thrusters at 11:34 Houston time.
Within minutes, attitude control began to fail on the space station. There were several reasons this was an issue. The station needs to be in a certain position to keep signal with geostationary satellites, and to talk to Mission Control at the ground. This predetermined attitude is also required for solar arrays to be able to gather power.
G forces on the station's structures are another concern. Many components of the large space station were built in microgravity. They are designed to operate at zero gravity. Even small stresses can cause cracks and other problems to the station's structure.
All of these reasons were the reason Houston and Moscow space station flight controllers acted quickly when the station began to drift. At 11:42 AM, the station lost its attitude control completely. The service module's engines were then fired. The Russian Progress vehicle was attached to the station and handed over to it. It then began firing its thrusters. The tug-of war offset Nauka module thruster activity. Fuel supplies eventually ran out. Attitude control was restored by Thursday at 12:29 p.m. It took quite a while on the ground as well as in space.
"Yeehaw!" Zebulon Scoville tweeted his excitement after his shift. "That. "That. A. Day."
The situation seemed to be under control by Thursday afternoon, when NASA officials held an emergency teleconference to update reporters. However, officials declined to comment on how serious the situation was in Mission Control, before the station returned back to its normal attitude.
Joel Montalbano, NASA's space station program manager, said that "until you exhaust all of your contingency planning, you're really not starting to worry." "And that's not what we did today."
Montalbano stated that a team made up of NASA engineers had already begun to study the effects of Thursday's loss in control over the station's structure. Russian engineers were also evaluating the health of Nauka's module. Both groups will complete preliminary assessments by Friday night.
NASA had to delay the Starliner spacecraft's launch scheduled for Friday because of this. The long-awaited mission is coming 19 months after a December 2019 test flight went wrong due to software issues. Boeing offered to fly Starliner a second test mission before it was crewed. This was because Starliner could not dock with the space station during its first test flight.
NASA has moved the Starliner launch from Florida to Tuesday at 1:20 PM EDT (17:20 UTC). It used its Atlas V rocket. If everything goes smoothly, Starliner will dock next Wednesday with the space station if the spacecraft launches next week.
The Russians will work on integrating Nauka into the space station. It is a large module with crew quarters, a scientific experiment airlock, and many other amenities. It weighs in at 24 metric tons and is approximately 20 percent bigger than the Zvezda module, which is the largest segment of station.
Nauka's history has been long and, thus far, tragic. Eight days after its launch, it was delayed for more than a decade due to technical and financial problems. Russia encountered problems with Nauka's main propeller system shortly after it reached orbit. This delayed docking with the space station. Nauka successfully docked with the station after it used backup thrusters to increase its altitude. We don't know what role the problems with the propulsion system that occurred shortly after launch could have played in Thursday’s difficulties.