NASA and the Russian space agency on Aug. 29 discovered a hole in the International Space Station that was leaking the station's limited supply of breathable air out into space.
And immediately the question that presented itself, ready made for a grim outer-space thriller, is who done it? The implications are so sinister—sabotage by someone on the ground, or, creepier still, one of the six astronauts on board—that initial reports suggested it was a puncture by some random space junk. But that no longer appears to be the case.
Controllers on the ground directed the station's inhabitants to patch the hole with tape. After the simple repair, the station—humanity's only off-world habitat—is fully functional and there's no danger to the crew, NASA said.
But according to the Russian space agency, the hole might have come from someone deliberately drilling through the thin hull of the Soyuz resupply capsule that, at the time NASA detected the leak, was attached to the Russian side of the station.
"There were several attempts at drilling," Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian Ruscosmos space agency, said in televised comments on Sept. 4. "What is this: a production defect or some premeditated actions?"
The mystery began when controllers in Houston and Moscow detected a slight drop in the station's internal air pressure. The whole crew—three Americans, a German and two Russians—was asleep at the time. Controllers waited until the crew awoke to alert them to the problem.
"They were in no danger," Stephanie Schierholz, a NASA spokesperson, told The Daily Beast via email.
"After a morning of investigations, the crew reported that the leak was isolated to a hole about two millimeters in diameter in the orbital compartment, or upper section, of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft attached to the Rassvet module of the Russian segment of the station," NASA reported on its official blog.
Controllers in Houston worked with their colleagues in Moscow and the station crew to plug the hole. Cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev "used epoxy on a gauze wipe to plug the hole identified as the leak source," NASA explained.
Meanwhile, controllers restored the station's normal air pressure by releasing oxygen from a Progress supply capsule, one of three spacecraft docked at the station at the time.
Reading news of the leak, observers on Earth immediately suspected "micrometeoroid/orbital debris" or MMOD—a.k.a., space junk—was the cause. But an MMOD strike powerful enough to punch a hole in the station is highly unlikely.
"The space station is the most heavily shielded spacecraft ever flown," Schierholz said. "Critical components, e.g., habitable compartments and high-pressure tanks, will normally be able to withstand the impact of debris as large as one centimeter in diameter.
Shortly after plugging the leak, NASA published photos of the hole. Sure enough, it didn't look like the kind of damage space debris would inflict. "Hmmm, doesn't look like MMOD," tweeted Chris Bergin, managing editor of NASASpaceFlight.com.
Indeed, the hole looked very much like it was drilled. Sloppily. Perhaps by someone with a "wavering hand," as Rogozin said in his televised remarks.
Rogozin said it's possible someone tried to sabotage the Soyuz capsule while it was on Earth. "We are checking the Earth version," he said. "But there is another version that we do not rule out: deliberate interference in space."
It's unclear why one of the station's crew would want to vent their own breathable air into space. It’s unprecedented for a cosmonaut or astronaut, or anyone else associated with any country’s space program, to secretly damage a spacecraft. “There are no earlier instances of sabotage in space history that I can point toward,” Roger Launius, NASA’s former chief historian, told The Daily Beast.
Roscosmos has convened a special commission to investigate the hole. The commission will issue its report in September, the Russian space agency stated. "Measures will be defined to prevent such situations."
"NASA will support the commission's work as appropriate," Schierholz said.
If the hole really is the result of sabotage, the implications are serious for the Russian space agency, NASA and humanity's access to space.
While both American and Russian robotic capsules haul supplies to the International Space Station, at present only Russia's Soyuz capsules are certified to transport people to the station. NASA plans to begin using new capsule designs from Boeing and SpaceX to carry station crew starting in 2019.
Until then, the rest of the world needs Russian capsules. If Moscow grounds Soyuz, it temporarily grounds the whole human race.
NASA insisted it is optimistic the Russians will figure out what went wrong, and prevent it happening again. "Our Russian partners have demonstrated their human and technological resilience many times throughout the history of their efforts in human spaceflight," Schierholz said.
"NASA does not directly oversee Russian quality control," a space industry insider told The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak to the press. "The agencies agree to adhere to a set of interface requirements and specifications regarding spacecraft headed for the ISS."
That doesn't necessarily mean the station is in grave danger, even if there is a saboteur out there. It would take a pretty big hole to pose a serious risk.
It can take hours or days for a hole to even have a noticeable effect on the ISS's atmosphere, the insider said. "Small leaks do not immediately endanger a large spacecraft such as the ISS."
But down on the ground, the incident has shaken the Russian public. The country’s largely censored television news rarely admits the government’s mistakes and almost never reports the failings of state agencies. But last week’s ongoing “space detective” story had the state television channels competing to condemn the management of the entire Russian space industry.
“This two-millimeter hole reminded us about a huge hole in Russian space industry,” a Rossia-24 presenter declared on Wednesday, describing previous cases of reckless technical control on the ground. “As usual, everything was covered by Russian 'maybe it will work.'”
With all its oil and gas money, Russia has never managed to produce its own quality cell phone or laptop, but spaceships were something every Russian brought up as an example of national pride. The first human in space, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, is treated as a national hero. But the years of glory are long gone. The space pride is fading away now. Today, even the Kremlin-loyal news agencies have to admit the obvious: Russia’s space agency is in deep crisis.
The scientific manager of Russian Space Policy Institute, Ivan Moiseyev said on national TV on Wednesday: “We still have spacecraft and cosmodromes, but the incidents caused by stupid mistakes have become systematic.”
And the core question in this mystery keeps coming back: who the hell drilled the hole in Soyuz?
On Tuesday, parliament member Maksim Surayev even speculated that one of the Russian crew members had drilled the hole. “It might be psychologically difficult there, or there was some conflict,” MP Surayev speculated. “Maybe somebody felt bad and tired so much, they drilled that hole to be able to come home sooner.”
Russian cosmonauts and space experts were angry about Surayev’s speculations. “I think it is nonsense to suggest that somebody intentionally damaged the spaceship,” cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko told Tass news agency. “Astronauts could not damage the spaceship, because they are healthy people, both physically and psychologically.”
In Moscow, experts continue debating whom to blame. “It is still unclear who that wavering hand belongs to,” Russia-24 channel’s presenter said and suggested that it might be “somebody in the assembly shop in the town of Krolev, in Moscow outskirts.”
The investigation has now focused on employees at Energia, Russia’s leading rocket-space enterprise.
“One thing clear to the Kremlin is that it is time to reform Roscosmos, but there is a dilemma of globalization: in the current political situation, we cannot buy any space equipment from the corrupt United States,” Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst told The Daily Beast.
When in doubt, blame the Americans.