Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Former NASA astronaut says cracks found on ISS are ‘serious’

Cracks are showing up on the International Space Station (ISS), and retired NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd says they are “quite a serious issue.”

Russian astronauts noticed cracks in the station’s Zaria module, Vladimir Solovyov, the flight director of the Russian section of the ISS, publicly disclosed the finding in August.

The cracks do not pose a threat to astronauts at this time, NASA says, and the agency told Insider last month that no one had identified “new potential leak sites” on the station.

But at Tuesday’s House committee hearing, Shepherd told Congressional representatives that “there are probably other cracks that we just haven’t found.”

“As far as I know, Russian engineers and NASA engineers — they’ve analyzed it — they don’t quite understand why these cracks are visible now,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd has orbited the spacecraft four times. He worked on the International Space Station program when its first modules were launching, and he commanded the station’s first crew in 2000. He said at the hearing that he learned more about the cracks at two meetings of NASA’s ISS advisory committee, which he recently joined.

The cracks are “quite small—they look like scratches on the surface of the aluminum plate,” Shepherd said, “there are probably something like half a dozen of them.”

NASA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

‘this is wrong’

Shepherd told the House committee that at present, the cracks are not large enough to cause a “serious problem.”

But last month, Solovyov told state-owned news agency RIA: “This is bad and suggests the cracks will start to spread over time,” according to a Reuters report translating his statement.

Solovyov did not share how widespread the cracks were at that time.

Shepherd did not say whether NASA and Russia plan to investigate the cracks beyond the analysis they have already concluded.

In the past, both space agencies have taken their time when investigating and repairing issues that do not threaten the safety of astronauts or interfere with ISS operations.

the space station is getting old

The ISS has been orbiting Earth for 20 years, and it is showing signs of age. Russia’s side of the space station hosts some of its oldest components, and the cracks are the latest in a series of issues in those modules.

Last year, a toilet on the section malfunctioned, the temperature mysteriously rose, and an oxygen-supply system broke down.

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In September 2019, another space-station module, Zvezda, which provides living quarters for cosmonauts, began leaking air. It was not an immediate danger to the astronauts, and they eventually found the hole and patched it with Kapton tape.

Russian media previously reported that Solovyov told the Russian Academy of Sciences: “There are already many elements that have been seriously damaged and are out of service. Many of them are not replaceable. After 2025, we Many elements are involved on the ISS that predict an avalanche-like failure.”

Even Russia’s latest module – a spacecraft called the yacht, which it launched to the ISS in July – has experienced serious problems. Shortly after docking at the station, the ferry unexpectedly began firing its thrusters. It rotated the entire ISS about 540 degrees and turned upside down before flight controllers regained control an hour later.

NASA has funding to continue operating the ISS until 2024, and aims to obtain an extension from Congress to continue the station’s activities through 2028.

But Shepherd said that NASA must first solve the mystery of the new cracks in the Zaria module.

Soyuz spacecraft docking with the ISS Zarya module, 2009 (NASA)

“Getting to the bottom of this is a very serious issue,” Shepherd said. “I don’t think the station is in any immediate danger. But before we evacuate the station for so many years of operational use, we must understand it better.”

The ISS will eventually retire and push itself into the atmosphere to burn. After that, NASA doesn’t want to build a new station; The agency is instead recruiting private companies to do so.

It is currently evaluating about a dozen space-station proposals from various companies, with two to four aiming to distribute between $400 million.

Eventually, NASA hopes to be one of many customers on private commercial space stations.

The agency has already awarded Axiom Space $140 million to fly the module to the ISS that would eventually split off from it to become its own space station. Axiom aims to launch its first module to the ISS in 2024.

Meanwhile, China launched the first piece of its own space station earlier this year, and the astronauts completed their first three-month mission last week.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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