International World

Russia’s New 23-Ton Module Docked, Then Sent the Space Station Spinning

Hours after a new Russian module docked at the International Space Station on Thursday, it unexpectedly fired its thrusters again and set the space station into an unexpected spin.

It took 45 minutes for mission controllers to get the situation back under control. NASA officials said there was no danger to the seven astronauts on the space station.

“Today was another day where we are learning how important it is to have an operational team that is prepared for every contingency,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator, said during a news conference Thursday afternoon.

The 23-ton module, named Nauka, adds a laboratory, an additional sleeping quarter, and other capabilities to the Russian segment of the space station. After its launch last week, it encountered a series of propulsion problems that Russian controllers were able to resolve before its rendezvous with the space station.

On Thursday morning at 9:29 a.m. Eastern time, the module gently docked with the outpost in orbit. Cheers could be heard over the audio feed as the operation was completed. Even that success was accompanied by some drama as the automatic docking system did not operate quite as expected, and Oleg Novitsky, a Russian astronaut aboard the station, had to take over manual control of Nauka to guide it final few feet to its docking port.

“Oleg, congratulations, that was not an easy docking,” Russia’s ground control said to Novitskiy.

At about 12:34 p.m. Eastern time, Nauka upended the astronauts’ day when its thrusters unexpectedly started firing, twisting the orientation of the space station. The rate of spin reached a maximum of about half a degree a second and the station’s orientation twisted by 45 degrees.

If it had continued to spin at half a degree a second, the space station would have flipped around entirely in about 12 minutes.

Controllers fired other thrusters — first on Zvezda, another Russian module, then on a docked Russian Progress cargo vehicle — to push the space station back into its correct position by 1:30 p.m.

The torque of Nauka’s thrusters would have put a strain on some of the structures and the change in direction would have meant that the solar panels and antennas were not pointing in the correct direction. “You risk some things getting too warm or too cold,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s program manager for the space station.

Communications with the crew were disrupted twice — once for four minutes, then for seven minutes.

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, will lead the investigation of what went wrong with Nauka while NASA engineers are evaluating whether the stress and strain caused any damage. “Right now, we haven’t noticed any damage to the ISS,” Montalbano said.

He said the Russian controllers have sent commands to prevent any more inadvertent thruster firings.

The problem with Nauka led NASA to postpone the launching of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which was scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Friday and dock at the space station on Saturday. The launch is now scheduled for Tuesday.

“We wanted to make sure we had some breathing room to fully assess the situation on station before adding another vehicle to the ISS configuration,” Lueders said.

Like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, Starliner is designed to take NASA astronauts to and from the space station. This flight will not have any people on board but is a do-over of an uncrewed flight to demonstrate all of the systems are working properly. The first demonstration flight, in December 2019, went awry because of software flaws and never docked at the space station.

Earlier this year, Russian space officials were talking about pulling out of the International Space Station when the current agreement with America and other partners expires, a reflection of souring relations with the United States.

But that didn’t stop them from sending up the Nauka module, whose design and development began more than 20 years ago — long before the current political tensions bubbled up. Its launch was repeatedly delayed by manufacturing flaws and underfinancing.

The module is seen as important for the entire Russian space program. Russia is the only major operator without its own laboratory module and Nauka in Russian means science. That is fitting for its main mission: housing laboratory equipment for experiments.

But the 42-foot-long cylinder will also provide extra living room, including a bed for one astronaut. It also adds water purifying equipment and can draw electricity from its solar wings. The Russian section of the station had been drawing power from the American side.

It will also host a new robotic arm provided by the European Space Agency.

Nauka is now one of the largest modules on the station. A series of spacewalks will be needed to hook it up to the station’s electrical and command circuits.

Although a Russian Proton rocket flawlessly lofted the new module into orbit, problems appeared almost immediately.

A glitch with the spacecraft’s engines had scientists back on Earth nervous for days, according to the European Space Agency. “Adversity insisted on being part of the journey,” the agency said in a statement.

While Nauka eventually attached to the station, it flew as an autonomous spacecraft for several days in orbit. The module deployed its solar panels and antennas but then failed to fire engines to raise its orbit, a potentially mission-ending problem. Russian engineers managed to correct it, the European Space Agency said, characterizing the episode as a few “hectic days at mission control.”

Roscosmos never directly addressed the problems in its updates on the mission, noting only in a news release last Thursday that the module’s thrusters were, in fact, operating.

The docking procedure itself was risky. After all, Russia sent a 23-ton object on a collision course with the $100 billion space station.

What Russia sought to avoid is what happened in 1997, when a Progress cargo rocket crashed into its earlier space station, Mir, rupturing one of the modules and destroying a solar panel.

Since the 1997 accident, docking procedures have become much more sophisticated. At the time, the Progress was under the manual remote control of a Russian astronaut on Mir. The docking of the new Nauka module was almost entirely autonomous.

And mission managers have had much practice in the 20-some years they have been managing the International Space Station. It was launched in pieces that had to be docked in orbit. Still, engineers are properly paranoid about avoiding even unlikely disasters.

When SpaceX was readying the first mission of its astronaut capsule to the space station — without a crew aboard — Roscosmos raised a concern that if the Crew Dragon’s computer failed during the approach, the capsule would crash into the space station. (SpaceX’s cargo capsules approached from a different direction so there was no possibility of a collision.)

NASA agreed to implement some precautions — closing hatches on the ISS and readying the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that carries astronauts to and from the outpost for a rapid evacuation, if necessary. The Crew Dragon docking proceeded without a hitch, and before the second Crew Dragon mission, the one taking NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the space station last year, SpaceX made more changes that eliminated even the unlikely possibilities of something going wrong.

Earlier this year, Russian officials said they were considering ending their participation in the International Space Station in 2025, which is when operations are currently set to end.

But American officials are looking to extend the station’s life to 2028, or maybe 2030. They, so far, do not seem concerned about the Russian statements. The Russian news agency TASS reported that Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency, said that the exit would be gradual.

Decisions regarding space are rarely sudden.

Just three years ago, it was the United States and NASA that were saying they intended to leave ISS by the end of 2024. Space station supporters in Congress, like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, balked, and space agency officials subsequently made clear that this was not a hard deadline and that they would not leave until commercial stations were operational.

A year later, the Trump administration shifted its space focus to sending astronauts back to the moon, and talk of withdrawing from or retiring the ISS ended.

The Russian officials said they would work toward building a new Russian space station, although they did not say how the country’s chronically underfinanced space program could sustain one. With SpaceX’s Crew Dragon becoming operational, the Russian space program lost one of its main sources of revenue: NASA buying seats on the Soyuz rockets.

NASA is negotiating an agreement with Russia in which NASA astronauts would continue to ride on the Soyuz spacecraft in exchange for Russian astronauts going to space in SpaceX and Boeing capsules. In that arrangement, no money would be exchanged, but it would help ensure that astronauts become familiar with all of the equipment.

The announcement has also come as tensions have grown between the United States and Russia. In April, President Joe Biden formally blamed Moscow for hacking operations and placed sanctions on Russian entities. Russia has also entered into an agreement with China to work toward a lunar base in the coming decade.

Still, cooperation between the two countries in space goes back decades before the Soviet Union fell apart. Even in 1975, during the Cold War, NASA and Soviet spacecraft docked in orbit, and the astronauts greeted each other. Later, American space shuttles flew to the Russian Mir space station, and several NASA astronauts lived aboard Mir.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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