Cracks found on the International Space Station are a 'fairly serious issue,' a former NASA astronaut says
The International Space Station ISS, photographed by crew members of Expedition 56 from a Soyuz spaceship. NASA / Roscosmos
Former NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd gave Congress new details about cracks on the space station.
About half a dozen cracks have appeared in the Russian Zarya module, but they are not a threat to astronauts.
Investigating the cracks is "a pretty serious subject," Shepherd said, and there is probably more to it than that.
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Cracks are surfacing on the International Space Station, and retired NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd says they are "a pretty serious problem".
After Russian cosmonauts discovered the cracks in the station's Zarya module, Vladimir Solovyov, flight director of the Russian segment of the ISS, publicly announced the discovery in August. The cracks currently pose no threat to astronauts, NASA says, and the agency told Insiders last month that no one has identified "new potential leaks" on the station.
But in a House hearing on Tuesday, Shepherd told Congress officials that "there are likely other cracks that we haven't found yet".
"As far as I know, the Russian engineers and NASA engineers - they analyzed it - don't understand exactly why these cracks are occurring now," Shepherd said.
Shepherd has flown into orbit four times on the Space Shuttles. He was working on the International Space Station Program when the first modules were launched and commanded the station's first crew in 2000. At the hearing, he said he learned more about the cracks in two meetings of NASA's ISS advisory committee. which he recently joined.
The cracks are "pretty small - they look like scratches on the surface of the aluminum plate," Shepherd said, adding, "there are probably about half a dozen of them."
NASA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
'This is bad'
A Soyuz spacecraft approaches a docking port on the space station's Zarya module, December 22, 2009. NASA
Shepherd told the House Committee that the rifts were not currently long enough to pose a "serious problem".
But last month, Solovyov told the state-run RIA news agency, "This is bad and suggests the cracks will spread over time," a Reuters report said, which translates his statement.
Solovyov did not share how big the cracks were at that time.
Shepherd didn't say whether NASA and Russia plan to investigate the cracks further beyond the analysis that has already been completed. In the past, both space agencies have taken time to investigate and fix issues that do not endanger astronauts' safety or disrupt ISS operations.
The space station is getting old
An illustration shows an Axiom Space module orbiting above the earth. Axiom space
The ISS has orbited the earth for 20 years and shows signs of age. The Russian side of the space station is home to some of its oldest components, and the cracks are the latest in a series of problems in these modules.
Last year a toilet broke on the segment, the temperature mysteriously rose, and an oxygen supply system broke down. In September 2019, another space station module, Zvezda, which provides living space for the cosmonauts, began to lose air. This wasn't an imminent threat to astronauts, and eventually they found the hole and patched it up with Kapton tape.
Russian media previously reported that Solovyov told the Russian Academy of Sciences, “There are already a number of elements that have been seriously damaged and are out of order. Many of them are not interchangeable with numerous items aboard the ISS. "
Even Russia's newest module - a spacecraft called Nauka that was launched for the ISS in July - has had serious problems. Shortly after it docked at the station, Nauka unexpectedly began firing its engines. This caused the entire ISS to spin 540 degrees and turn upside down before air traffic controllers regained control an hour later.
A screenshot from NASA's livestream shows the Nauka module approaching its port on the International Space Station on July 29, 2021. NASA via Youtube
NASA has the funds to keep the ISS running through 2024 and is seeking an extension of Congress to continue the station's activities through 2028.
But Shepherd said NASA should first solve the mystery of the new cracks in the Zarya module.
"Getting to the bottom of this is a pretty serious problem," said Shepherd. "I don't think the station is in imminent danger. But before we clear the station for that much more operating time, we should understand this better."
The ISS will eventually retire and force its way into the atmosphere to burn. After that, NASA does not want to build a new station; instead, the agency recruits private companies. It is currently evaluating around a dozen space station proposals from various companies with the aim of distributing $ 400 million to two to four of them.
Sergei Krikalev (left) and James H. Newman begin work on the Zarya module, December 11, 1998 NASA
Ultimately, NASA hopes to be one of many customers on private commercial space stations.
The agency has already awarded Axiom Space $ 140 million to fly modules to the ISS that will eventually detach from it and become its own space station. Axiom plans to bring its first module to the ISS in 2024.
China, meanwhile, launched the first piece of its own space station earlier this year, and astronauts completed their first three-month mission there last week.
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