Nauka — a long-delayed laboratory module that Russian space agency Roscosmos’ launched to the International Space Station last week — inadvertently fired its thrusters after docking with the International Space Station Thursday morning.
NASA officials declared it a “spacecraft emergency” as the space station experienced a loss of attitude (the angle at which the ISS is supposed to remain oriented) control for nearly one hour, and ground controllers lost communications with the seven astronauts currently aboard the ISS for 11 minutes during the ordeal. A joint investigation between NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos is now ongoing.
Joel Montalbano, the head of NASA’s International Space Station Program, insists the astronauts were never in danger and that they have not noticed any damage to the ISS. NASA’s Mission Control in Houston, Texas, however, at one point asked them to look outside the windows of the space station to see if they could spot any debris or damage to the station.
The incident also delayed the launch of the Boeing Starliner uncrewed test flight to the station, which had been set to launch on Friday.
NASA says the move allows the “International Space Station team time to continue working checkouts of the newly arrived Roscosmos’ Nauka module and to ensure the station will be ready for Starliner’s arrival.”
“Spaceflight is hard, and when we bring on new capabilities there can be glitches, which is why we prepare and train for these contingencies,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
NASA officials were quick to downplay the severity of the incident, describing it as a “pretty exciting hour” and a “dynamic event.”
“Until you exhaust all your contingency plans, that’s when you start to worry and today we just weren’t there,” said Montalbano.
Yet Montalbano also acknowledged that accidental firings of thrusters have only taken place “maybe three or four times” during the 20 years that the space station has been in orbit.
Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA during the Obama administration, described the incident as “a reminder that our lack of insight into our Russian partners capabilities is an uncontrolled risk. I’m not sure we would have allowed one of our commercial partners to dock with (the) station if they had just experienced the problems we heard about with this module in advance.”