January 27, 2022

Russia threatens criminal charges against a NASA astronaut

Russia threatens criminal charges against a NASA astronaut
Russia threatens criminal charges against a NASA astronautRussia threatens criminal charges against a NASA astronaut
Image of the hole in Soyuz MS-09 vehicle docked to the International Space Station in 2018.
Enlarge / Image of the hole in Soyuz MS-09 vehicle docked to the International Space Station in 2018.

The Russian space corporation, Roscosmos, said it has completed an investigation into a “hole” found in a Soyuz spacecraft when the vehicle was docked to the International Space Station in 2018.

Moreover, Roscosmos told the Russian publication RIA Novosti that it has sent the results of the investigation to law enforcement officials. “All results of the investigation regarding the hole in the habitation module of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft were transmitted to Law Enforcement officials,” Roscosmos said. No further details were provided.

In Russia, the results of such an investigation are sent to law enforcement to allow officials to decide whether or not to initiate a criminal case, which would be akin to issuing an indictment. Russia does not have a grand jury system like in the United States, where investigators hand over their evidence to prosecutors, who decide whether to press charges.

While no astronauts or cosmonauts were ultimately in danger, the August 2018 incident has been embarrassing for Russian space officials. At the time, a 2 mm breach was discovered in the orbital module of the Soyuz MS-09 vehicle docked with the International Space Station. Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev, European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst, and NASA’s Serena Auñón-Chancellor had flown to the station inside this Soyuz in June.

Left unchecked, the small hole would have depressurized the station in about two weeks. However, cosmonauts were able to patch the hole with epoxy, and the Soyuz spacecraft safely flew Prokopyev, Gerst, and Auñón-Chancellor back to Earth at the scheduled end of their six-month mission.

Who did it?

Since then, the focus has been on what—or who—may have caused the hole. A micrometeoroid strike was soon ruled out. Some Russian media reported that the hole had been caused by a manufacturing or testing defect, and this seems to be the most plausible theory. At the same time, however, sources in the Russian government started baseless rumors that perhaps a disgruntled NASA astronaut had drilled the hole.

The Russian state news service, TASS, escalated the issue in April when it published accusations that Auñón-Chancellor had “an acute psychological crisis” after suffering an instance of deep vein thrombosis in space and drilled the hole in an attempt to expedite her return to Earth. NASA pushed back against those claims at the time.

Now, with the announcement that its investigation is complete, Russian officials have floated another conspiracy theory. In the RIA Novosti article, translated for Ars by Rob Mitchell, the publication cites reports that Auñón-Chancellor may have drilled the hole “due to stress after an unsuccessful romantic relationship with another crew member.”

NASA, again, strongly asserted that these attacks on Auñón-Chancellor are without merit. “These attacks are false and lack any credibility,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told Ars. “I fully support Serena and stand behind all of our astronauts.”

Russian provocations

The reality is that these attacks are indeed false. NASA has known, with certainty, that they lack validity since the 2018 incident. The agency’s space station program, based in Houston, was able to immediately determine that pressures began falling on the space station in late August 2018. NASA also knew the precise locations of the US astronauts on board the station before the leak occurred—and at the moment it began. None of the US astronauts on the station were near the Russian segment where the Soyuz vehicle was docked. US officials shared this data with Russians at the time.

This latest provocation—NASA officials and the astronaut office are incensed by charges like these—come at a perilous time. After Russia’s military shot down its own satellite as part of a test earlier this month, astronauts on board the space station had to shelter inside their spacecraft for more than two hours out of concern for debris. A spacewalk planned for Tuesday morning also had to be canceled at the last minute due to debris concerns, although it was not immediately clear that this was due to debris from the Cosmos 1408 collision on November 15.

The United States and Russia have been more or less amicable partners in space for the better part of three decades. This space alliance, however, now appears to be falling apart, with tensions exacerbated by Russian provocations that are difficult to explain.

Russia’s space chief, Dmitry Rogozin, is due to meet in person with Nelson next year in Russia. Perhaps Rogozin will use that time to explain the country’s aggressions against NASA and its astronauts in space.