The early days of space programs – especially when pilots were still testing various modes of flying in space – were fraught with accidents, deaths and the possibilities that crews could be stuck in space in perilous situations and in need of being rescued. When the U.S. Air Force was a key early player in the space race, a space rescue mission seemed like a possibility with another space plane being able to take off on a moment’s notice. When NASA and the Soviet space programs took over and the mode of transportation turned to rocket-carrying capsules, that possibility diminished – the preparation time far surpassed the ability to respond quickly. Even the space shuttle required a rocket launch.
The International Space Station planned for such a situation by docking a spare capsule to act as a ‘lifeboat’ in the event of a need to abandon ship. That plan has two flaws – there are times when the number of crew members could exceed the seating capacity of the spare and there have been times when the backup capsule has showed faults and leaks that could preclude its safe usage. The second example is the situation the ISS crew finds itself in today – the spare Soyuz capsule is leaking due to an unknown cause. As a result, the Russian space program Roscosmos is planning for a possible rescue. Are they ready? Shouldn’t this be turned over to a program with proven reusable rockets and quick turnaround times like SpaceX? Or are we still not ready for space rescue missions? And don’t forget that the ISS crew is made up of Americans and Russians whose countries are participants in the war in Ukraine.
"If the situation is under control and we are fully confident in the spaceship’s working capacity, it will be used for the crew’s standard descent as was planned in March. If the situation develops under a different scenario, we, of course, have backup options."
Roscosmos chief Yury Borisov reported on December 19 on the situation which began four days prior when mission control noticed a drop in pressure in the Soyuz MS-22’s external cooling loop just as the two Russian cosmonauts currently working on the ISS were preparing for their scheduled spacewalk. Photos taken by multiple cameras showed a shower of particles spewing from the Soyuz spacecraft that intensified alarmingly. The initial inspection confirmed the cause was a coolant leak and spacewalk was canceled. That was the least of the crew’s worries as they now focused on determining the extent of the problem and what might have caused it.
Roscosmos flight controllers ran tests on the rest of the Soyuz MS-22’s systems and found no other faults. A visual inspection by ISS cameras pinpointed an 0.8 mm (0.03 inch) hole in the spacecraft’s instrumentation/equipment compartment and speculation pointed to either a micrometeoroid or space debris striking the external cooling loop. NASA reported that all of the coolant had leaked out within 18 hours of the appearance of the leak.
"We did look at the meteor showers that were occurring, Both the trajectory team in Houston and the trajectory team in Moscow confirmed it was not from the meteor showers; it was in the wrong direction."
While one group of space scientists looks after the well-being of the potentially endangered crew members, others began the finger-pointing. Joel Montalbano, NASA's International Space Station program manager, said during a press briefing that this didn’t look like meteoroid damage and that implied space debris – a sore subject at NASA since the Russian space program and military has been the cause of such debris with the destruction of a satellite which has forced the ISS to be moved to avoid possible collisions. However, planning a potential rescue is not the time to be pointing fingers.
"Of course, we have backup options. We will prepare the spaceship faster. Instead of the scheduled March descent, we will prepare it somewhere by February 19. It is already installed at the Baikonur spaceport and undergoing all the tests. In this situation, we will simply undock the Soyuz MS-22, it will descend to Earth and we will send a second spaceship to bring back the crew."
In an interview with the daily Izvestia, Borisov assured everyone that Roscosmos is ready for a rescue. The return flight scheduled for March can be moved up to February 19th. It can fly to the ISS autonomously, pick up the crew and return them safely to Earth. Meanwhile the troubled Soyuz MS-22 can undock and return to Earth empty. Unfortunately, the instrument module with the hole in it must be detached before the return, so it can’t be inspected on the ground. That is just one problem with the plan. The other is that the earliest possible date for the rescue flight is nearly two months away. That is not much of an ‘emergency’ plan.
It should be noted that the rest of the ISS is in no danger from the leaking Soyuz capsule at the present time. There is also a Crew-5 Dragon capsule docked for the return of the other four astronauts currently stationed there. In the media reports so far, there has appeared no discussion of SpaceX sending a rescue capsule to the ISS before February 19th, or if that is even possible. This highlights the continued dangers of spaceflights. After the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, NASA initiated Space Shuttle missions designated STS-3xx or “Launch On Need (LON)” missions which would be implemented to rescue the crew of a Space Shuttle if their vehicle was damaged and deemed unable to make a successful reentry. The plan was to send a modified shuttle to the ISS to rescue its entire crew. The second shuttle would be ready and waiting on a separate launch pad. That was an expensive (tying up a second shuttle and pad) and untested system. The space shuttle was retired in 2011. Is there a similar program set up to replace it?
“The U.S. government and commercial spaceflight providers have no plans in place to conduct a timely rescue of a crew from a distressed spacecraft in low- Earth orbit, or anywhere else in space.”
In 2021, Grant Cates, a senior engineering specialist at the Aerospace Corp.’s space architecture department in Chantilly, Virginia, and a former NASA space shuttle ground crew chief, did some research and came to that scary conclusion – a conclusion made scarier by the abundance of space tourists launched in 2022. He notes that the Apollo 13 crew implemented the option to turn their lunar lander into a lifeboat to conserve fuel and electricity in their damaged command module. That was in 1970. Over 50 years later, it appears NASA and Roscosmos are still relying primarily on lifeboats for space rescues.
Let us hope the crew members on the ISS stay safe and a replacement Soyuz is sent in time in the event of an emergency. In the meantime, this should be food for thought for anyone contemplating becoming an astronaut or a space tourist anytime soon.