U.S. and Russian space officials have tried to downplay rumors of sabotage on the International Space Station (ISS) after a Russian newspaper suggested that U.S. astronauts may have purposely drilled a tiny hole into the station.
The September 12 report by the Kommersant newspaper followed a series of unusual reports about the hole, which was discovered last month.
Crew members, who include three Americans, two Russians, and a German, discovered it after recording a slight dip in air pressure within the station.
Initial suspicion focused on a small meteorite, but last week, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency Roskosmos, said the hole may have been caused by a drill, used by someone either during manufacturing on Earth or while in orbit.
He also suggested the hole may have been sabotage.
The Kommersant report said that a technical commission was looking into the possibility that American astronauts deliberately drilled the hole in order to get a colleague who had an unspecified medical problem sent back to Earth for treatment.
Kommersant quoted unnamed sources as saying that possibility was being looked at "as a priority."
The unconfirmed report raised eyebrows both in Washington and in Moscow.
NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said the agency was waiting for the Russians to complete their investigation, which a Roskosmos spokesman said would happen by mid-September.
"We work closely with our Russian partners to identify the source and the solution," she told RFE/RL.
Schierholz said the incident shouldn't be considered indicative that Russian-U.S. space cooperation was in danger of fraying.
The two countries have worked together to man the orbiting station for 18 years, she said, adding, "We've been able to maintain a successful relationship through all sorts of things."
In Moscow, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov told the RIA Novosti news agency that it was "shortsighted and dangerous" to speculate on the cause of the hole until the investigation was completed.
Borisov also tried to downplay suggestions that bilateral space cooperation was in jeopardy. "It is absolutely unacceptable to cast a shadow either on our cosmonauts or on American astronauts," he was quoted as saying.
The crew on the space station is "a unified group where there are no political disagreements," he told RIA Novosti.
Even before the publication of the Kommersant story, the insinuations of sabotage had struck a nerve with the current commander of the station, NASA astronaut Drew Feustel.
"I can unequivocally say that the crew had nothing to do with this on orbit, without a doubt, and I think it's actually a shame and somewhat embarrassing that anybody is wasting any time talking about something that the crew was involved in," Feustel said in an interview with ABC News on September 11.
"The only thing the crew did was react appropriately, follow our emergency procedures, eventually locate that leak and plugged the hole," he said. "In doing so, we assured the continued operation of the space station."
Rogozin was quoted in the Kommersant story, speaking on the sidelines of a major economic forum in Vladivostok. "The situation appears to be more complicated than we originally thought," he said.
And then he weighed in further in a Facebook post on September 12. "Spreading speculation and rumors about the incident on the ISS doesn't help the experts at Roskosmos and is aimed at undermining the comradely relations among the crew of the space station," he wrote.