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After Near-Disaster With New Russian Space Module, More Murk Over Mysterious Holes

The Nauka science module docks with the International Space Station on July 29.

When a newly arrived Russian module sent the International Space Station spinning and nearly knocked it off its orbit, experts and longtime space watchers held their breath, and then exhaled when no lasting damage was detected.

Observers also wondered what else might knock the longtime partnership between NASA and Roskosmos further off its already wobbly trajectory.

That answer might be a lurid anonymous allegation published by Russian state news agency TASS involving a still-unexplained incident on the orbiting station in 2018. Senior NASA officials dismissed the allegation, saying the U.S. space agency does not consider it credible.

The incident involved a mysterious hole that was discovered in the hull of one of the station's Russian-built modules. In the TASS story published on August 12, an unnamed "high-ranking official in the Russian space industry" was quoted as saying that there were in fact eight man-made holes discovered, not just one.

Without providing evidence, the Russian official asserted that a NASA astronaut on board at the time, Serena Aunon-Chancellor, had experienced a medical problem involving blood flow that "could have provoked an acute psychological crisis" which, in turn, might have led her to seek a way to return to Earth before the mission was over.

NASA declined to comment directly to RFE/RL, but pointed to a tweet on August 13, by the head of NASA's human spaceflight program, Kathy Lueders, who said that NASA astronauts including Aunon-Chancellor "are extremely well-respected, serve their country, and make invaluable contributions to the agency."

"We stand behind Serena and her professional conduct," Lueders said. "We do not believe there is any credibility to these accusations."

NASA chief Bill Nelson, also on Twitter, said that he wholeheartedly agreed with Lueders's statement, adding, "I fully support Serena and I will always stand behind our astronauts."

The hole in the space station
The hole in the space station

The TASS article also said the anonymous commentary "quite clearly reflects the Russian leadership's vision of the current situation." Asked if the article reflected Roskosmos's official position, the state-run company's press service declined comment.

Earlier, when asked about the status of the investigation into the hole incident, a NASA spokesman directed questions on the subject to Roskosmos.

Space Cooperation Under Strain

The comments come as the three-decade relationship between Moscow and Washington in the area of space exploration is increasingly under strain, stretched both by unrelated geopolitical tensions but also major transformations in how space is being explored and exploited.

A state-run corporation that was formed a decade ago as part of an internal reorganization of Russia's venerable space industry, Roskosmos has itself been battered by a series of scandals and mishaps.

Roskosmos head Dmitry Rogozin (left to right), Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Igor Arbuzov, CEO of the rocket-engine manufacturer Energomash, visit an Energomash factory near Moscow in April 2019.
Roskosmos head Dmitry Rogozin (left to right), Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Igor Arbuzov, CEO of the rocket-engine manufacturer Energomash, visit an Energomash factory near Moscow in April 2019.

The most recent came last month when Roskosmos launched a new module carrying new scientific equipment for the international crew on the station.

The Nauka module first suffered problems in its flight to the station. Then, after it docked with the station, an apparent computer glitch caused the module's engines to continue firing, causing the station to do an entire rotation.

Engineers were forced to turn on engines in two other modules at the station to prevent an uncontrolled spin, and bring the station under control.

"Space Suspense," said the European Space Agency, in a press statement after the situation was brought under control. "It has been an emotional time -- years of delays, a tense countdown, a mighty launch, and then hiccups in orbit" for the Nauka, said the agency, which contracted with Roskosmos to bring a new multimillion-euro robotic arm to the space station.

NASA, for its part, has said little about the Nauka mishap, in large part because control of the module's thrusters was almost entirely in the hands of Russian engineers. In a blog post on its website on August 12, the agency said that "an investigation team" was being formed.

"The team will focus on analyzing available data, cooperating with our Russian colleagues for any information they require for their assessment, and coordinating with the other international partners," it said.

Cosmonaut Demotion

Prior to the Nauka mishap, Roskosmos had been battered by embarrassing headlines in the Russian media involving a well-regarded veteran cosmonaut. Sergei Krikalyov was reportedly demoted after he complained about a plan championed by Roskosmos's chief executive, Dmitry Rogozin, to send a well-known TV director and a famous actress to shoot a feature film on the orbiting station. Rogozin was named as a co-producer.

Krikalyov could not be reached for comment on the reports.

For his part, Rogozin, who was a former nationalist lawmaker and ambassador to NATO known for sharp bureaucratic elbows before taking over as Roskosmos chief, has been subject of years of grumbling about his leadership.

Since the Soviet era and the start of the Space Age, Moscow's main space launch facility has been at Baikonur, in Kazakhstan. After the Soviet collapse, Russia continued leasing the facility, but later moved to build a new replacement facility called Vostochny in the Far Eastern region of Amur.

A Proton-M booster rocket carrying the Nauka module blasts off from the launch pad at Russia's space facility in Baikonur on July 21.
A Proton-M booster rocket carrying the Nauka module blasts off from the launch pad at Russia's space facility in Baikonur on July 21.

The $7.5 billion construction project, which began in 2011, has been plagued by delays, wage disputes, and reports of rampant corruption.

Prosecutors have opened a series of criminal investigations into the construction companies, amid allegations that money has been siphoned off to offshore accounts.

Aleksei Kudrin, the head of the government's Audit Chamber and a former longtime finance minister, told President Vladimir Putin earlier this year that auditors had turned up 30 billion rubles ($400 million) in financial irregularities at Roskosmos in 2020.

And just eight launch attempts have taken place from Vostochny. At the inaugural launch in April 2016, which Putin attended, engineers canceled blast-off minutes prior.

Roskosmos's biggest vulnerability at present, experts say, is the loss of steady revenue from NASA, which has for nearly a decade paid Russia to shuttle U.S. astronauts and cargo to and from the space station.

The advent of private, mainly U.S.-based space companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin, however, has deprived Roskosmos of a reliable cash flow. Following the March 2020 delivery of U.S. astronauts to the space station by a SpaceX craft, NASA moved to end the purchase of seats on Soyuz flights for U.S. astronauts.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.