NASA Weakly Defends Astronaut Following Russian State Media Accusations of ISS Sabotage


A view from the ISS on October 7, 2018, during expedition 56/57 .

A view from the ISS on October 7, 2018, during expedition 56/57 .
Image: NASA Johnson

Still stinging from the recent ISS cartwheeling mishap, Russian state-owned news agency TASS alleges that a NASA astronaut deliberately damaged a docked Soyuz spacecraft for the purpose of facilitating a prompt return to Earth, in an incident dating back to 2018. The claim is unfounded and outrageous—but you wouldn’t know it from NASA’s tepid response.

TASS is directing the accusation at NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, who served as a member of the Expedition 56/57 crew, along with Alexander Gerst of ESA and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos, from June 6, 2018 to December 20, 2018. TASS claims that an anonymous source told the news agency that Auñón-Chancellor developed deep vein thrombosis while in orbit, a condition that, according to the source, could have made her mentally unstable, leading her to drill a hole into the Soyuz spacecraft to expedite a return to Earth.

The claim is monstrously preposterous and offensive, and NASA’s halfhearted response to the accusation leaves much to be desired.

Eight holes were drilled into the Soyuz spacecraft, but only one penetrated the hull.

Eight holes were drilled into the Soyuz spacecraft, but only one penetrated the hull.
Image: NASA

I thought we were done with this stupid story, but apparently not. It all started on August 29, 2018, when a minor air pressure leak was detected on the International Space Station. The leak was traced to the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft that launched to the ISS on June 6, 2018. Crew members temporarily patched the 2-millimeter-wide hole with Kapton tape and later with an epoxy-based sealant. Problem solved.

Russian officials scrambled to determine a cause. Initial speculation was that a micro-meteorite caused the fracture. This theory was eventually ruled out as it became apparent that the hole was created from the inside. Accordingly, Russia’s space agency Roscosmos claimed that the hole was caused by a “faltering hand,” that is, human error during manufacturing, or “deliberate spoilage,” in reference to sabotage. Russian media took it further, claiming that a sick NASA astronaut deliberately created the hole to expedite a quick return to the surface. That said, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev insisted that the hole wasn’t drilled by a crew member.

The spacecraft eventually returned to Earth on December 20, 2018 without incident, but Roscosmos never disclosed an official reason for the hole. The Russian media is now revisiting this theory in the wake of the Nauka incident, in which a newly arrived module inadvertently fired its thrusters, causing the ISS to perform 1.5 backflips before control was restored. In response to the ensuing criticism from American media outlets, the state-run TASS ran a post on August 12 to counter 12 American claims made against Roscosmos.

The post addressed claims like, “Russia cannot maintain the space infrastructure inherited from the USSR in working order,” and “Russia designs ships and modules well, but builds and operates them poorly,” but the response to the claim that the Russian space program is now replete with problems, from air leaks through to Nauka, hit way below the belt.

The author of the TASS report, Mikhail Kotov, is claiming to have received information from an anonymous high-ranking official in the Russian space industry. Ars Technica science reporter Eric Berger suspects the source is Dmitry Rogozin, the general director of Roscosmos, and he’s probably not wrong.

The hole couldn’t have been drilled while the spacecraft was still on Earth, because if “there were any holes in it, then the pressure in this ship would immediately drop and it would not pass the appropriate tests,” claims TASS’s source (translation from Russian to English provided by Google). Auñón-Chancellor, having developed the first known case of deep vein thrombosis in orbit (thrombosis is when a blot clot forms in one or more deep veins, cause leg pain and swelling), provoked an “acute psychological crisis,” compelling her to conjure a strategy “to speed up her return to the planet,” TASS’s source speculates.

A scientific paper from 2019 reported that one astronaut developed the condition as a result of prolonged exposure to microgravity conditions, but the identify of the astronaut wasn’t revealed.

Other purported lines of evidence include a malfunctioning video camera at the junction of the Russian and American segments, and the American refusal to have their astronauts take a polygraph test, whereas Russian cosmonauts agreed to take the so-called lie detector test. As the TASS article also claims, the “Russian Federation did not get the opportunity to examine the tools and drills that are on the ISS for the presence of the remains of metal shavings from the hull of the household compartment of our ship.” Seven of the eight holes detected on the spacecraft (only one hole pierced through the hull) were drilled “as if with bounces of the drill, which rather speaks of drilling precisely in zero gravity conditions without the necessary support.” Finally, the haphazard location of the holes suggests it was done by a person not familiar with the construction of the Soyuz spacecraft, the article asserts.

Writing at NASA Watch, former NASA employee Keith Cowing said the scenario proposed in the TASS article “sounds more like one of those goofy movie plots that Russia always seems to want to film on the ISS.” He described the article as “childish, defensive, and not the sort of thing that a great spacefaring nation should be putting out to explain its problems.”

Cowing also brought up an excellent point about how Auñón-Chancellor was outed as having deep vein thrombosis. This is a big no-no, as it’s a violation of an ISS code of conduct signed by Russia and other partners. As the code stipulates: “All personal medical information, whether derived from medical monitoring, investigations, or medical contingency events, shall be treated as private medical information and shall be transmitted in a private and secure fashion in accordance with procedures to be set forth by the [Multilateral Medical Operations Panel].”

During an unrelated teleconference on Friday, August 13, Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, expressed her opinion when asked to comment on the TASS article.

“Serena is an extremely well-respected crew member who has served her country and made invaluable contributions to the agency,” Lueders said. “And I stand behind Serena—we stand behind Serena and her professional conduct, and I did not find this accusation credible.”

Lueders repeated her stance on Twitter, with Senator Bill Nelson chiming in with his support.

NASA’s official statement on the matter is a bit underwhelming, as it explicitly fails to dismiss the accusation being made in the TASS article:

All the International Space Station partners are dedicated to mission safety and the welfare of the crew. The International Space Station partners all participate in multiple reviews prior to every major station activity to assess and ensure the safety of all crew members. The hole that was detected in late August 2018 by the space station crew was quickly sealed, restoring air-tight pressure to the station. Russian cosmonauts conducted a spacewalk that December to gather additional engineering data for Russian specialists on Earth and to look externally at the effectiveness of the internal repair. The Soyuz spacecraft was thoroughly checked and deemed safe for the crew to return to Earth, which it did, on Dec. 20, 2018.

To protect their privacy, the agency will not discuss medical information regarding crew members.

As Berger asserts, “NASA’s public relations folks apparently weighed whether they should stand up for their astronaut and respond to something obviously ridiculous or, for the sake of expediency, avoid getting into a pissing match with Roscosmos.” The space agency, it would seem, “chose the latter,” he wrote.

That approach is understandable but also infuriating. Stronger words in condemnation of the accusation and a full-throated support of an unfairly maligned NASA astronaut were absolutely warranted in my opinion. What’s more, the NASA statement, as far as I can tell, does not appear anywhere on the agency’s website. Unless there’s some context we’re missing, it seems that NASA could do more to defend its astronaut from this attack.