NASA plans to use SpaceX to rescue astronauts after Russian space station leak

NASA plans to use SpaceX to rescue astronauts after Russian space station leak

On December 15, NASA and its astronauts faced a scary situation when a The Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked at the International Space Station caused a massive coolant leak, shortly before a pair of Russian cosmonauts began a spacewalk. The crew on board is safe and in no immediate danger, but two cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut are expected to use the Soyuz vehicle to return to Earth early next year. With the spacecraft’s status in limbo, NASA and Roscosmos (Russia’s space agency) have been trying to figure out their options moving forward.

To that end, NASA is mulling a contingency plan: using a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission to effectively rescue stranded astronauts in the coming months.

“Teams on the International Space Station continue to meet regarding the leak from the external cooling circuit of Soyuz MS-22,” 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 bring the crew home safely. The Expedition 68 crew remains in good health, performing maintenance and research activities.

“Also, we have asked SpaceX some 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’s still unclear what exactly a SpaceX mission would entail. A Crew Dragon spacecraft (named Endeavour) is already docked at the ISS, and theoretically more seats could be added to this mission when it is supposed to return to Earth next year. But this mission is already full of four people: NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina.

Another option would be for NASA to prioritize a new SpaceX Crew Dragon launch to the ISS specifically to pick up the three crew members who are supposed to return to Soyuz: NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and the Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dimitri Petelin.

The loss of coolant means that the current Soyuz capsule is seeing large temperature spikes. NASA has said that temperatures in the capsule remain “within acceptable limits” and that it is being cooled by a flow of vented air that is allowed from an open hatch to the rest of the ISS. But it seems almost impossible to imagine that the capsule could still be used to transport humans back to Earth.

The cause of the Soyuz leak is still unknown. An investigation found a hole in the outside of the radiator, which could have been caused by a micrometeoroid or a small piece of orbital remnants. A hardware failure could also be to blame, which would only add more scrutiny Roscosmos’ growing space malfunctions.

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