The relationships between the U.S. and Russian space programs has progressed through many diverse stages – from fierce Cold War animosities to cautious aid to friendly cooperation that culminated in NASA sharing the International Space Station and Roscosmos providing reliable transportation to and from it. Unfortunately, the last relationship, like that between the two countries themselves, has deteriorated recently. A mysterious and persistent air leak on the Russian side of the ISS was attributed – after long delays and changing excuses – to a faulty inspection and coverup. Russia then announced it would work with China on its new station, followed that up with a conflicting announcement that it would begin building its own soon, and then seemingly contradicting that by sending a major new module to the ISS. Then came the latest and biggest problem of all – shortly after docking, the new module unexpectedly fired its thrusters – sending the entire station into a spin that was initially reported to have turned the ISS 45 degrees. And now … the news from NASA is that this problem was far worse than first announced. Is it time for a divorce? Retaliation? Both? Or worse?
“That’s been a little incorrectly reported.”
In what has to be the understatement of 2021 so far, Zebulon Scoville, the flight director who was in charge at NASA’s mission control center in Houston during last week’s incident, told The New York Times that the thruster firing by the 45,0000 pound Nauka Multipurpose Laboratory Module-Upgrade docked to the 900,000 pound ISS turned both of them not 45 degrees but one-and-a-half revolutions, about 540 degrees, and left them upside down – requiring NASA to flip it 180 degrees forward to return the combo to its upright and locked position.
“We knew we had a limited amount of time.”
This operation was not as easy as it sounds. The ISS has four large gyroscopes spinning at 6,000 revolutions a minute to keep it steady but they were no match for the thrusters. NASA notified Roscosmos, which said there was no way to turn them off from the module – it would have to wait 70 minutes until the station passed over Russia again to be switched off by ground control. Really! Fortunately, the thrusters on another docked Russian module could be fired from inside and that slowed things down. Luckily, that combination caused the Nauka thrusters to run out of fuel after 15 minutes, and NASA ground control could then assess the ISS position and flip it back to normal.
“Due to a short-term software failure, a direct command was mistakenly implemented to turn on the module's engines for withdrawal, which entailed some modification of the orientation of the complex as a whole.”
In an attempt to out-understatement Scoville, Roscosmos issued a press release blaming the whole incident on a software glitch – everything is fine now, move along. It is still planning to send a movie crew to the ISS in the fall to film the first on-location space thriller, beating Tom Cruise to the punch. Meanwhile, NASA is planning to jettison the whole thing, have Elon Musk send the cosmonauts back to Moscow and start dropping their bathroom waste over Russia.
Sorry, that’s what most of us would do. Flight Director Scoville has a different take.
“I have complete confidence in the Russians. They are a fantastic partnership with NASA and the entire International Space Station program.”
That sounds like public relations. Don’t be surprised if the end of the “fantastic partnership” happens sooner than later.
Maybe Tom Cruise can at least punch someone for us.