16 October 2021

IEEE Spectrum: “Space Station Incident demands Independent Investigation”

By then the warped NASA management culture that soon enabled the Columbia disaster in 2003 was fully in place. Some of the wording in current management proclamations regarding the Nauka docking have an eerie ring of familiarity. Space cooperation continues to be a hallmark of U.S.-Russian relations and I have no doubt that our joint work reinforces the ties that have bound our collaborative efforts over the many years wrote NASA Director Bill Nelson to Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency, on July 31. There was no mention of the ISS’s first declared spacecraft emergency, nor any dissatisfaction with Russian contribution to it.

To reverse the apparent new cultural drift, and thus potentially forestall the same kind of dismal results as before, NASA headquarters or some even higher office is going to have to intervene. The causes of the Nauka-induced “space sumo match” of massive cross-pushing bodies need to be determined and verified. And somebody needs to expose the decision process that allowed NASA to approve the ISS docking of a powerful thruster-equipped module without the on-site real-time capability to quickly disarm that system in an emergency. Because the apparent sloppiness of NASA’s safety oversight on visiting vehicles looks to be directly associated with maintaining good relations with Moscow, the driving factor seems to be White House diplomatic goals—and that’s the level where a corrective impetus must originate. With a long-time U.S. Senate colleague, Nelson, recently named head of NASA, President Biden is well connected to issue such guidance for a thorough investigation by an independent commission, followed by implementation of needed reforms. The buck stops with him.

James Oberg

What astonished me about this incident from earlier this year was also this relative radio silence from official NASA channels, and from the astronauts themselves! I follow one of the ESA astronauts currently on board the ISS, Thomas Pesquet, and I don’t remember him ever mentioning this unprecedented situation on his Twitter feed, which makes me suspect that NASA officials instructed them to stay quiet. Keeping things under wraps is not a great sign that the agency intends to thoroughly investigate and prevent similar incidents in the future. And sure enough, another test firing of thrusters on the Russian Soyuz crew module resulted in a second, albeit less severe, emergency just yesterday!

Russian Nauka Module docked to the International Space Station
Russia’s “Nauka” Multipurpose Laboratory Module is pictured shortly after docking to the Zvezda service module’s Earth-facing port on the International Space Station, with the Brazilian coast 263 miles below. In the foreground is the Soyuz MS-18 crew ship docked to the Rassvet module on 29 July 2021. NASA

A major accident on the ISS, possibly resulting in loss of lives or rendering the station itself inoperable, would be a major blow to the US space program, and to public confidence. Meanwhile, China is launching its own taikonauts on their first six-months mission to the Tiangong space station. At this rate, it doesn’t seem far fetched to expect that China will overtake the US in space by the end of the decade…

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