Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) rely on the thin hull of the station to protect them from the vacuum of space. Even a small breach could spell disaster for the station and its crew, so personnel on the ground carefully monitor conditions. It’s a good thing, too. The crew was alerted to a drop in pressure in September last year, leading to the discovery of a small hole in a Russian Soyuz capsule docked at the station. This has been the subject of much speculation, but former ISS commander Alexander Gerst now says he believes the hole was caused by a botched repair job.
The subsequent investigation of the Soyuz damage has been a roller coaster ride showcasing the declining relations between the US and Russia. Initially, NASA believed the hole was the result of a micrometeoroid impact. However, closer inspection showed several gouges and scratches that could have been made by a drill. Since the damage was inside the Russian spacecraft, Roscosmos was tasked with the investigation. Russian news sources and officials have repeatedly speculated that the hole was the result of deliberate sabotage, even going so far as to cast aspersions on the crew of the ISS.
The Soyuz capsule in question flew to the ISS in June 2018 carrying three passengers: Russia’s Sergey Prokopyev, Germany’s Alexander Gerst, and Serena Auñón-Chancellor of the US. Gerst returned to Earth last month, and he recently sat down for an interview with BBC Radio 4. When asked about the hole, he had a much less sensational take. He believes someone on the ground damaged the spacecraft and improperly repaired it.
According to Gerst, the hole was most likely caused by a drill, and not the kind of drill astronauts have aboard the ISS. The 2-millimeter hole in the capsule caused a drop in station pressure, but it was never life-threatening to the crew. The hole had a small spot of glue over the top, indicating someone tried to repair the damage, Gerst said. If the patch had failed while the capsule was heading to the ISS, the crew could have been in greater danger due to the smaller volume of the Soyuz compared with the whole ISS.
So, the question remains: who made the hole? There’s at least one similar instance of drill damage to a Soyuz capsule. In that case, a worker on the ground damaged the spacecraft and attempted to cover up the mistake with an epoxy patch. The damage was detected pre-launch, though. Odds are something similar happened this time, but no one noticed the damage in time. It’s not as sexy as an outer space conspiracy, but few things are.
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