After a series of technical problems, the Russian space station module Nauka docked with International Space Station last Thursday. The problems didn't end there. Three hours after connecting to the station, Nauka started firing its propulsion thrusters and throwing the space station out of control.
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NASA Mission Control Houston initiated "loss-of-attitude control" procedures aboard the station. This is a procedure that astronauts and flight controllers practice for. Together with Russian flight controllers, they ordered the station to start its thrusters on the Russian section of the space station. They also attached a Progress supply vehicle to the laboratory. This combined action prevented the station's violent tumble until Nauka ran out of primary fuel.
NASA called a press conference immediately after this close call and invited key players to the media including Kathy Lueders, human spaceflight chief, and Joel Montalbano, the head of the International Space Station program. Both Roscosmos and NASA both said they had the situation under control and minimized the risk to the station's astronauts and crew.
They deferred many technical questions to Roscosmos who has provided mixed messages. Vladimir Solovyov (ex-cosmonaut) stated in an official statement that Roscosmos had misinterpreted a direct command to activate the engines of the module for withdrawal. This caused some modifications to the orientation of the entire complex.
This makes it sound like a software problem. Roscosmos' head Dmitry Rogozin later admitted that someone could have made a mistake. According to Reuters, he said that "Everything was going smoothly, but there was a human element." After the successful docking, there was some euphoria and everyone got relaxed.
The immediate threat is over, but the main concerns are whether this has happened and what it might mean for Russian participation in the International Space Station Program. NASA's primary goal is to keep humans in low Earth orbit. This means that the station will be flown for the rest of 2020.
It is possible that Nauka's error in thruster firing was caused by human error. This would make it at least the third major problem in a short time due to poor work. After a Soyuz booster malfunction, the October 2018 launch of Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Okchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague failed. The crew had to make an urgent return to Earth. An investigation revealed that the booster's side was improperly connected to the Soyuz core stage.
Russia also announced at the same time that there was a small hole inside a Soyuz vehicle attached to the International Space Station. Rogozin stated that the problem was caused by a technical error made by a technician.
Roscosmos's engineers and technicians have been struggling to make a living wage, which has led to these technical errors. The country's space budget is now under pressure because NASA doesn't need to purchase Soyuz seats for its astronauts who will be flying to the International Space Station. This is thanks to SpaceX's Crew Dragon vehicle, and hopefully, Boeing's Starliner.
NASA has maintained its support for Russia's space program despite all this. It is gratifying to see that Nauka, despite its many difficulties in reaching the space station, is now functional. This is significant because it cements Russian participation at the space station for the rest of the decade.
It is not possible to guarantee that. Russian officials have been stating that Roscosmos' orbital hardware, which is much older than 20 years, is beyond repair. Russian officials have suggested that they might pull out from the program in 2025 to build a new station. Roscosmos released a statement on Saturday, two days following Nauka's problematic docking. It stated that it was continuing to study a new station project called the Russian Orbital Service Station. It is very possible that this is a posturing tactic, since Russia doesn't have the resources nor the ability to quickly build a new station.