As a response to a query from NASA, SpaceX looked into retrofitting the Crew Dragon currently docked to the International Space Station to carry five crew members in an emergency. The solution: Move a seat from a leaky Soyuz to the Crew Dragon.
The query was the result of a Soyuz spacecraft that lost a considerable amount of its coolant in a leak. Upon analyzing the problem, mission controllers believe the Soyuz got hit by a micrometeoroid.
A similar micrometeoroid caused damage to the International Space Station’s big robotic arm, Canadarm2, in June 2021. The problem is that even small objects like micrometeoroids can cause significant damage when they collide with orbiting assets at high speeds. The International Space Station orbits Earth at about 17,500 miles per hour.
The cooling system is critical for keeping its crew alive during return to Earth. NASA is still working with the Russian space agency Roscosmos on possible solutions for the problem. Roscosmos says it can send a replacement Soyuz to the International Space Station but it probably won’t be ready to launch until February 22 at the earliest.
While the space agencies work, the current International Space Station crew moved a seat liner from Soyuz MS-22 to the Crew Dragon named Endurance. The seat liner was designed for NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, who flew to the International Space Station on the Soyuz on September 21, 2022.
The Crew Dragon can normally carry up to four people. With the move of the seat liner, it can hold five – and even that might be an improvised make-do fix until they can get the replacement Soyuz.
This isn’t the first time NASA made plans to use a modified spacecraft to rescue a crew. It once modified an Apollo Command and Service Module to retrieve a crew from the Skylab space station in case they had to evacuate. Luckily, the modified Command and Service Module turned out to not be needed.
The good part, NASA says, is that the move can reduce the heat load on the leaky Soyuz in case they have to evacuate the entire crew before the replacement arrives. Unlike the Crew Dragon, Soyuz spacecrafts tend to be cramped with three people packed so tightly that moving an arm would likely mean bumping another crew member. Besides the “three people packed into the backseat of a small car” level of annoyance, it means things can get a bit stuffy just from radiated body heat without the coolant.
Josh Cassada and Nicole Mann handled the work of installing the seat liner on Endurance. They had launched on the Crew Dragon as part of Crew-5 on October 5, 2022. Crew-5 will return home shortly after the launch of Crew-6, which is scheduled for February 26, 2023.
Until its scheduled return – and hopefully the on-time arrival of the replacement Soyuz – Endurance is equipped to carry five crew members back to Earth in case of an emergency. Hopefully it won’t be needed.