A Hole in the Plan: Has the International Space Station Been Sabotaged?

On Wednesday August 29th, 2018 flight controllers on Earth detected a small but persistent loss of cabin pressure on the International Space Station. The air on the ISS was evacuating into space. Terrifyingly, the leak was first detected while all the onboard crew were asleep. Mission Control was able to determine that the air leak was not large enough to pose significant danger for the rest of the night, so they decided to let the crew get their sleep. When they woke up at the normal time, they were contacted by the Mission Control centers in Houston and Moscow to guide them through the process of locating the leak. The crew soon located a two millimeter wide hole in the side of a Soyuz capsule docked with the ISS, the spacecraft traditionally used to transport astronauts to and from the Station. The astronauts initially patched the hole Kapton silicon tape, buying time to install a more permanent fix that took the form of gauze and epoxy. Thus, Mark Watney is yet again proved to have been correct when he said “Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.” – Andy Weir, The Martian

crew on the International Space Station

Unfortunately, the story does not end here. Astronauts and ground crew alike initially assumed that such a hole in the exterior hull would have been caused by a small asteroid. This did not prove true. As one can clearly see from the photo below, taken by astronauts on the ISS, that is not the kind of hole made by an asteroid. Examination has resulted in the conclusion that the hole was made with a drill. This leaves two possibilities: either the hole was made due to manufacturing error on Earth, or it was made in flight. At this point the far more likely theory is that the hole was made by a careless technician during production on the capsule on Earth. It is possible that said technician then attempted to hide their mistake and patched the hole with, yet again, something like duct tape, explaining why the hole was not discovered until after docking. The possibility of sabotage has not yet been entirely ruled out, but NASA has issued a statement saying that it is unlikely the hole was made with the intent to cause harm. 

the hole found in the Soyuz capsule
Russian astronauts collect samples from the Soyuz exterior for analysis upon return to Earth

In order to determine the source of the breach, Russian astronauts Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Prokopyev conducted a spacewalk on the outside of the affected Soyuz capsule. Their main intent was to cut away parts of the exterior insulation in order to access the area around the hole, proceeding to take samples of the breach for analysis when they were returned to Earth. Ironically, said samples will be transported Earthward by the very same Soyuz capsule they were removed from. This spacewalk was far from straightforward however. The Soyuz capsule is one of the few parts of the ISS not designed for exterior maintenance, meaning that, unlike the rest of the station, it has no rails, handles, or other points for astronauts to grab onto. As you can see above, suit-cam footage from one of the astronauts appears to show him floating off into space, albeit only a tiny amount, after attempting to cut open the Soyuz with what looks like a hunting knife. Thus, this was one of the most risky spacewalks in recorded history. Fortunately, months of planning were undertaken before the spacewalk was conducted and both astronauts returned to the interior of the station perfectly fine. Unfortunately, we may not find out for certain the results of this investigation until the samples have been analyzed on Earth. Until then, all we can do is wait.



Former Editor in Chief of The City Voice, finally graduated City High Middle School as part of the Class of 2022.