A tiny hole in a Soyuz spacecraft attached to the International Space Station has turned into a strange game of international telephone.
Scientists immediately determined that the pressure leak in the capsule attached to the ISS, first detected on August 30, wasn’t a big deal — the astronauts were never in danger of running out of air or of being sucked into space.
But back on Earth, the CEO of Russian space agency Roscosmos suggested sabotage, saying he wouldn’t rule out that the hole was made through “deliberate spoilage”. This has somehow spiralled into claims — and denials — that Russian leaders had accused US astronauts of secretly drilling the hole.
NASA first reported signs of a tiny pressure leak in the ISS on August 30, and deemed that the astronauts were not at risk. Analysis revealed that the leak came from a hole in the Soyuz MS-09 module docked to the ISS, which arrived in June.
The astronauts patched the hole with tape and then epoxy, fixing the problem. Some speculated at first that the damage could have been caused by a micrometeorite.
But then everyone saw a photo of the hole — which certainly looked as though it were created from inside the capsule by a drill. Roscosmos CEO Dmitry Rogozin said perhaps the hole was caused by an error during the manufacturing process. He did not rule out any options, though, including that someone drilled the hole intentionally, in Earth or in space.
“Now it is essential to [determine] the reason, to learn the name of the one responsible for that,” Roscosmos CEO Dmitry Rogozin said during a press conference. “And we will find out, without fail.”
But then, an anonymous source allegedly told the Russian news outlet Kommersant that Roscosmos hadn’t ruled out “deliberate sabotage” by the American astronauts in order to send a sick astronaut home early. They also reported that Roscosmos asked NASA for security footage. (Of course, reports in Russian media, which is controlled by the state, can’t exactly be taken at face value.)
The ISS station commander and NASA astronaut Drew Feustel denied any American involvement with the hole in an interview with America's ABC News:
“I can unequivocally say that the crew had nothing to do with this on orbit, without a doubt, and I think it’s actually a shame and somewhat embarrassing that anybody is wasting any time talking about something that the crew was involved in,” Feustel said.
Today, the Russian state-run RIA Novosti news agency published a story with a statement from Yury Borisov, deputy prime minister of Russia for Defence and Space Industry, denying that American astronauts were under suspicion. He said it was too early to speculate and asked people to wait until for the release of a report on the incident.
“It’s absolutely inappropriate to [compromise the reputation] of either our cosmonauts, or of American astronauts,” Borisov said.
Gizmodo has reached out to NASA for comment but had not heard back at time of writing.
But at least one expert familiar with the Soyuz module’s construction told Gizmodo it is preposterous to suggest that someone could have drilled the hole in space, due to the constraints of microgravity.
“You need to push with enough force to penetrate both the fibreglass and the aluminium wall,” Pablo De Leon, professor in extravehicular activities and space suit design at the Department of Space Studies of the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, told Gizmodo. “It’s mechanically difficult to do. You have no way to secure yourself with one hand in that particular space to make the hole with the second hand.”
Essentially, the module is spherically shaped, and drilling holes in microgravity requires anchoring onto something. It’s possible that one astronaut could have held onto another in order to drill the hole, but “no one would endanger their situation in such a way,” De Leon said.
A feud between the US and Russia, a mysterious hole in the ISS, and accusations of sabotage have all of the makings of a knock-off James Bond movie, but the truth is likely more mundane. Nevertheless, we won’t know what happened until the investigation is complete.
Russian translations provided by Marina Galperina.