The Russian space agency Roscosmos has been talking about building its own space station and moving out of the ISS, but it doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to do so. Perhaps it’s time for NASA to put some pressure on them … or possibly even send an eviction notice. Why? Well, after a pesky leak in the ISS in 2018 turned out to be a botched patch job on a docked Soyuz capsule, a leak in 2020 turned out to be a hole in the Zvezda service module (are you detecting a pattern here?), and the recently docked Nauka module accidently fired its jet thrusters and spun the entire ISS around, Russian cosmonauts have yet ANOTHER problem – this time they found cracks in the Zarya module. Good luck getting your security deposit back, Roscosmos!
“Superficial fissures have been found in some places on the Zarya module. This is bad and suggests that the fissures will begin to spread over time.”
Vladimir Solovyov, chief engineer of rocket and space corporation Energia, delivered the bad news to the RIA news agency, which was picked up by Reuters. The Zarya module, known to the astronauts as the Functional Cargo Block is probably overdue for an overhaul – it was the first component launched for the International Space Station back in 1998. However, its history – and who is ultimately responsible for it – is complicated. Zarya, Russian for “sunrise” or “dawn,” was built in in Moscow by the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center under a subcontract to The Boeing Company for NASA. Zarya was launched in November 1998 on a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and was attached in December 1998 to the Unity module which connects the Russian and U.S. segments. The Zarya module had been originally designed for Russia Mir space station with a lifespan of 15 years, so the warrantee has obviously expired. As Reuters explains:
“The space official (Solovyov) has said previously that much of the International Space Station’s equipment is starting to age and has warned there could be an “avalanche” of broken equipment after 2025.”
Solovyov also stated that he didn’t know if the cracks were leaking any oxygen. Based on past history plus the age of the module, that would be a safe bet. Despite that, The Russian space agency, Roscosmos has said it will remain part of the ISS until 2024 and is open to staying longer. Meanwhile, the Chinese space agency is building a brand new space station and developing plans for an ultra-large kilometers-long mega-spacecraft that would be would be 10 times the length of the International Space Station and a little over three times the length of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise.
These recent problems point out the obvious – the International Space Station is not aging gracefully and could become a dangerous place to live and work. Perhaps it’s time for NASA to move out too. But then what? Turn the business of space station operation over to private space companies? Ask Congress for funding to build a new one? Enter a new spirit of cooperation like it had with Russia in 1998 and join forces with China, the ESA and other space-faring nations to pool talent and resources so that humanity – not just nations – venture into space and benefit from it?
A leak is never a good thing in space. Maybe this one in the Zarya module will change that.