Last Thursday a large new module of the Russian space station, Science, has finally been merged with the International Space Station after several technical problems en route to the laboratory in orbit. However, the problems do not end there. About three hours after connecting to the station, Science began turning on its propulsion thrusters, throwing a space station off a filter.
As a result, NASA’s control mission in Houston has initiated procedures to “lose control of attitude” on the ship, which is trained by contingen astronauts and flight controllers. Then, in agreement with the flight controllers in Moscow, the teams ordered the station to fire its thrusters on the Russian segment of the space station, as well as the Progress supply vehicle connected to the laboratory. These combined actions prevented the station from overturning too abruptly until Science depleted its primary fuel supplies.
Following this, NASA hastily convened a press conference and presented key figures to the media, including Human Space Flight Chief Kathy Lueders and International Space Station Program Manager Joel Montalban. Both said that NASA and the Russian space corporation Roscosmos managed the situation well and reduced the overall risk for the station and the astronauts on board.
However, many questions on technical issues were transferred to Roscosmos, which offered various messages. A senior Roscosmos official, former cosmonaut Vladimir Solovyov, – it is stated in the official announcement, “Due to a short-term software failure, a direct command was executed by mistake to turn on the module motor for retraction, which led to some change in the orientation of the complex as a whole.”
Therefore, the problem sounds like a software error. But later, Roscosmos leader Dmitry Rogozin admitted that someone on the field could have made a mistake. “Everything was going well, but there was a human factor,” he told the Russian edition, as reported by Reuters. “There was some euphoria (after a successful landing), everyone relaxed.”
Now that the imminent danger has passed, the biggest concern is that it happened at all and what it could mean for Russia’s participation in the International Space Station program. For NASA, the primary goal is to maintain a human presence in low Earth orbit, and that means flying the station by the end of the 2020s.
Given the likelihood that Nauk’s misplacement of the thruster involved human error, this would be at least the third major problem in less than three years resulting from poor performance. In October 2018, the launch of Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin and NASA astronaut Nick Hague was interrupted after a malfunction on the alliance amplifier, so the crew had to return to Earth immediately. Subsequent investigation discovered that the side amplifier is not properly paired with the Soyuz rocket core.
Around the same time, Russia announced that there was a small hole in another Soyuz vehicle, which was already connected to the International Space Station. “We are able to narrow down the cause of the technician’s technological error,” Rogozin said problems.
These technical errors occurred because Roscosmos had trouble paying per diems to its engineers and technicians. And now the country’s space budget is facing further pressure as NASA no longer has to buy Alliance headquarters for its astronauts to drive to the International Space Station – thanks to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle and, hopefully soon, Boeing’s Starliner.
Despite all this, NASA continued to publicly support Russia and its space program. And it must be made easier that, despite the myriad problems getting to the space station, Science is now there and functional. This is important because probably cements Russia’s participation in the space station by the end of this decade.
There is no guarantee of that. In recent months, Russian officials have begun saying that the existing hardware of Roscosmos in orbit, most of which is more than two decades old, is old without repairs. Russian have also suggested they could withdraw from the 2025 program and build a completely new station. Indeed, just on Saturday, two days after Nauk’s problematic docking, Roscosmos issued a statement saying it was continuation of studies project of a new station in low Earth orbit called the Russian Orbital Service Station. This seems likely to be very likely, as Russia has neither the budget nor the likely ability to quickly build a new space station.