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Russia: Forget about the Nauka incident. Who punched the hole in the Soyuz, hmm?

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Opinion NASA’s relationship with its Russian International Space Station (ISS) partner is under a similar strain to, say, an orbiting outpost that has been given a surprise spin by a malfunctioning module.

The module in question is, of course, the long-delayed Nauka, which made an automatic docking to the ISS on 29 July before sending the complex on a wilder-than-desired ride a few hours later.

Despite reassuring noises from NASA, the incident was a near-disaster for the ISS as Nauka’s thrusters began firing, slowly rotating the station.

So bad was the situation that a spacecraft emergency was declared and The Register understands that controllers at at least one of NASA’s international partners were “very unhappy and worried” as the incident unfolded. Strong words in the normally tightly controlled world of spaceflight.

The problem was later attributed to a “software failure” but the brave face being put on will have triggered some déjà vu in observers that recall NASA’s habit of bending under the pressure of political expediency. The incidents aboard Mir while NASA astronauts were in attendance spring to mind, as do other events in the history of the agency where sound engineering judgements were trumped by politics.

Veteran commentator (and author of the excellent Star-Crossed Orbits) James Oberg warned that NASA might be repeating some of the lapses that led to earlier disasters.

The reaction from Russia appears to have been more along the lines of Roscosmos boss Dmitry Rogozin’s infamous “trampoline” comment than the foot shuffling and mumbled apology that one might have hoped for.

Instead, Russian news mouthpiece TASS went on the offensive, and brought up the mystery hole found drilled in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft.

“Russian cosmonauts took a lie detector test to clear up the situation with a hole discovered on the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft while NASA astronauts rejected it, a high-ranking source in the domestic space industry told TASS,” it said on 12 August.

The “high-ranking source” went on to say that the Russian side “received no possibility” to look at tools on the ISS for bits of Soyuz.

How the hole happened remains a mystery, although TASS quoted a “high-ranking source” again, claiming that it must have been drilled on orbit. After all, the Soyuz passed a pressure test on Earth so it must have been done in orbit. Right?

Maybe. Or maybe an accident happened during manufacturing, the result of which was plugged before the pressure test. The pressures on orbit could then have popped out the bung. In the absence of a formal report (and it is now almost three years since the incident), who knows?

One thing is for sure, however, that “high-ranking source” can’t be Roscosmos chief Rogozin.

Using the TASS mouthpiece in 2018, he denied rumours that a NASA astronaut had made the hole in the hope of securing an early return to Earth. “We have never accused the Americans of that. It was an unscrupulous interpretation of certain statements and media reports. I categorically deny these allegations as totally untrue,” he said.

NASA has yet to swat away the latest reports on TASS and did not respond to The Register’s request for comment.

The days of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project seem a very long time ago now.

Roscosmos is keen to move on from the ISS and build a Lunar Station with China. NASA and its international chums have the Gateway lined up. The near-disaster of the Nauka screw-up coupled with the latest rumour-mongering from those “high-ranking” individuals is straining the lauded US-Russia ISS partnership.

At what point will mounting problems finally overwhelm NASA’s carefully crafted political façade? ®

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