On December 15, NASA and its astronauts encountered a scary situation when AJ The Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station, resulting in a coolant leak shortly before the start of a spacewalk by a pair of Russian cosmonauts. The crew on board is safe and in no immediate danger, but two NASA astronauts and a cosmonaut were due to use the Soyuz spacecraft to return to Earth early next year. With the spacecraft in limbo, NASA and Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, are trying to figure out their options on how to proceed.
To that end, NASA is considering a contingency plan: using the SpaceX Crew Dragon mission to effectively rescue stranded astronauts in the coming months.
“International Space Station teams continue to meet on the Soyuz MS-22 external cooling circuit leak,” a NASA spokesperson told The Daily Beast in an emailed statement. NASA and Roscosmos will continue to review options together before making a final decision on how to get the crew home safely. The Expedition 68 crew is still in good shape, performing maintenance and research work.
“In addition, we have asked SpaceX a few questions about their ability to return additional crew members to Dragon if needed, but that is not our primary focus at this time.”
SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
It is not yet known exactly what the SpaceX mission will entail. The Crew Dragon spacecraft (named Endeavour) has already docked with the International Space Station, and in theory more seats could be added to this mission when it is supposed to return to Earth next year. But that mission is already packed with four people: NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Kasada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and Roscosmos astronaut Anna Kikina.
Another possibility would be for NASA to prioritize launching the new SpaceX Crew Dragon to the International Space Station specifically to retrieve the three crew members who were due to return to the Soyuz: NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petlin.
The loss of coolant means that the current Soyuz capsule experiences significant temperature increases. NASA said the capsule’s temperatures remain “within acceptable limits” and that it is cooled by ventilated airflow allowed from the open hatch to the rest of the International Space Station. But it seems almost impossible to imagine that the capsule could be used to bring humans back to Earth.
The cause of the Soyuz leak is still unknown. The probe discovered a hole on the outside of the cooler, which may have been caused by a micrometeorite or a small piece of orbital debris. It could also be caused by a hardware failure – which will only lead to further investigation into Roscosmos’ growing space failures.