Fire and smoke alarms sounded on the Russian segment of the ISS during the wee hours of Thursday morning, and crew reported that “the smell of burning plastic or electronic equipment” had wafted through into the US sections of the station.
Russia’s space agency confirmed that the incident took place at 01:55 GMT on Thursday in the Russian segment of the station, while the station’s batteries were being recharged. “A smoke detector was triggered in the Zvezda service module of the Russian segment of the International Space Station during automatic battery charging, and an alarm went off,” Roscosmos told Al Jazeera English. According to Roscosmos, the cosmonauts turned on the air filter and went back to their “night rest,” with plans intact for their spacewalk later Thursday.
These alarms are just the latest incident in a string of problems that goes back years. In October of 2018, a problem with the Soyuz booster shortly after takeoff forced the capsule into a ballistic descent. The astronaut and cosmonaut inside made an emergency landing a few hundred miles north of the launch site. Then in July of this year, the long-delayed docking of the Russian orbital lab, Nauka, went awry as its thrusters misfired and dragged the entire station into a slow roll.
Just a few months before the 2018 emergency Soyuz landing, the ISS crew scrambled to find and repair a hole that was causing a detectable loss in cabin pressure. It turned out that there was a hole in Soyuz. Cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev showed the fix in a video: “Everything is calm,” he said, before pulling back a cover to show the multilayered repair. “No one is plugging the hole with a finger.” NASA maintains that no one was in any danger at all. But Roscosmos needed someone to blame. This summer they released a wild story about an American astronaut aboard the ISS at the time. It asserted that a deep vein thrombosis had induced a nervous breakdown in orbit, and claimed that in order to get herself home faster, she had crept undetected through the manned Russian segment, possibly tampered with security cameras, snuck into Soyuz with a drill, and sabotaged a stage of the descent vehicle she was supposed to go back to Earth in. (Because, you know, that’s a great way to make sure that you get home on time. Or at all.)
Cooler heads, including the former ISS commander Alexander Gerst (who also came back to Earth in the repaired capsule), later concluded that the puncture was probably an error on the part of earthly Soyuz maintenance crews. Such a mistake wouldn’t be the first. There’s at least one other reported incident of exactly this type of hole being drilled into a Soyuz module — by an employee at Energia, which makes the Soyuz capsules. In that case, instead of reporting it so techs could weld the aluminum hull, the worker used epoxy to try to hide the error.
NASA takes this kind of thing very seriously; they’ve been running trials for their ongoing SAFFIRE experiments on smoke and fire detection in orbit, in order to learn how to best detect the smoke from burning materials including the same Kapton tape initially used to patch the Soyuz puncture.
Roscosmos says it’s no big deal, but Roscosmos says a lot of things.
If there’s one thing we know about holes in spacecraft, it’s that they’re no joke. Orbital velocity is stressful enough, literally and figuratively. Wind shear is more than capable of tearing away even a seal of molten metal applied from within, and a hole in your hull usually means you’re gonna have a bad time.
Let me be clear. To send American astronauts home on Soyuz after everyone knew about the drill gouges and the hole in its hull, it means NASA had to have signed off. This isn’t an accusation that Russia — or NASA, for that matter — attempted to sabotage Soyuz or the ISS.
But the ISS needs all of its humans to be vigilant with a strong safety culture. The station is getting on in years. Just like an old car burns oil, older parts require maintenance and present an elevated risk of failure. Both American and Russian experts have voiced concerns about the erosion of safety culture, and the risk it poses to the current and future wellbeing of the ISS. In April, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov told Russian state TV that the ISS could face an escalating sequence of failures, sooner rather than later. Borisov warned that the aging metal on the station could “lead to irreversible consequences – to catastrophe. We mustn’t let that happen.”