In mid-December 2022, control teams for the International Space Station noticed a bad leak in a Soyuz spacecraft designated to bring three crew members back to Earth. Analysis showed that it might have gotten hit by a micrometeroid and leaked onboard coolant.
The International Space Station can maneuver to avoid man-made debris and has dodged old rocket stages and defunct satellites. However, mission planners can’t always plan for natural space objects like meteoroids. A similar meteoroid caused damage to the robotic arm Canadarm2 in May 2021.
A planned EVA had to be canceled for safety reasons after the discovery of the Soyuz leak. However, that might not be the worst of it. With a leaky Soyuz, the three crew members – Russian Cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio – might not have a ride home now. For the moment, though, the crew is fine.
Now NASA and SpaceX are considering the feasibility of using a Crew Dragon to bring the entire crew home. According to SpaceX documentation, the Crew Dragon is rated for up to four passengers. The International Space Station’s Expedition 68 currently has seven crew members. The Crew Dragon for Crew-5 launched last October, bringing Nicole Mann, Josh Cassada, JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata, and Russian Cosmonaut Anna Kikina to the International Space Station.
One option might be McGyvering a way to add more seats to the Crew-5 Crew Dragon. However, it’s more likely that NASA will have to arrange with SpaceX to send another Crew Dragon to the International Space Station. It’s not like it would be the first time there were two Crew Dragons docked to the space station.
NASA says it will also attempt to work with Roscosmos to determine whether the Soyuz is still safe to use. The diplomatic relationship between Russia and the United States has been strained since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which started in March 2021. However, work with Roscosmos is hopefully going more smoothly now that Russia essentially fired the often-abrasive former Roscosmos Director General, Dmitry Rogozin. His bluster has historically included insulting the United States’ space program and threatening Elon Musk.
Roscosmos could also send a replacement Soyuz if the leaky one attached to the International Space Station is now unsuitable for use. However, it would have to be remotely controlled from launch to docking with the International Space Station – something that the Soviet/Russian space program had problems with when its “Mir” space station was still active. However, the International Space Station has had better luck with automated dockings, including using Canadarm2 to “grab” an approaching Cargo Dragon to maneuver it to a docking port.
NASA expects to have a solution to the problem of the leaky Soyuz by next month. Until then, the International Space Station will have to hang tight without a spacecraft meant to bring three crew members back to Earth.