On the space station, Band-Aid solves systemic problems

Launched in 2000, the Zvezda Service Module provides housing and performs some life support system functions.


NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos have not yet resolved a long-standing and worsening problem with leaks on the International Space Station.

Microscopic structural cracks are found inside the small PrK module on the Russian segment of the space station, which sits between an airlock on the Progress spacecraft and the Zvezda module. After the leak rate doubled earlier this year over a two-week period, the Russians experimented with keeping the hatch leading to the PrK module closed intermittently and conducted other investigations. But none of these measures taken during the spring worked.

“Following leak troubleshooting activities in April 2024, Roscosmos has chosen to keep the hatch between Zvezda and Progress is shut down when not needed for cargo operations,” a NASA spokesperson told Ars. “Roscosmos continues to limit operations in the area and, when its use is necessary, implements measures to minimize the risk to the Space Station International”.

What are the real risks?

NASA officials have downplayed the severity of the leak risks publicly and in meetings with external International Space Station stakeholders. And they currently pose no existential risk to the space station. In a worst-case scenario of structural failure, Russia could permanently close the hatch leading to the PrK module and rely on a separate docking port for Progress supply missions.

However, there appears to be growing concern surrounding the ISS program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The space agency often uses a 5×5 “risk matrix” to rank the probability and consequences of risks to spaceflight activities, and Russian leaks are now rated “5” in terms of both high probability and high consequences. At meetings their potential for “catastrophic failure” is discussed.

Responding to Ars’ questions via email, NASA public relations officials declined to make program leaders available for an interview. The ISS program is currently led by Dana Weigel, former flight director. She recently replaced Joel Montalbano, who became deputy associate administrator of the agency’s Space Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

A source familiar with NASA’s efforts to address the leaks confirmed to Ars that internal concerns about the issue are serious. “We heard that basically the program office had an uncontrolled fire and they were working to fix it,” this person said. “Joel and Dana are keeping this under control.”

American officials are likely to remain silent about their concerns because they do not want to embarrass their Russian partners. The working relationship has improved since the dismissal of the bellicose leader of Russian space activities, Dmitry Rogozin, two years ago. The current leadership of Roscosmos has maintained a cordial relationship with NASA despite high geopolitical tensions between Russia and the United States over the war in Ukraine.

Leaks are a sensitive topic. Due to Russia’s war efforts, the resources available for the country’s civilian space program will remain stable or even decline in the coming years. A dedicated group of Russian officials who value the partnership with the International Space Station are striving to “make do” with the resources they have to maintain their Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, which transport crew and cargo to the space station respectively, and their infrastructure in station. . But they don’t have the ability to make any major new investments, so they just have to fix things as best they can.

Aging infrastructure

At the same time, the space station is aging. He Zvezda The module was launched almost a quarter of a century ago, in July 2000, on a Russian Proton rocket. The cracking problem first appeared in 2019 and has continued to worsen since then. Its cause is unknown.

“They have fixed multiple leak locations, but others remain,” the NASA spokesperson said. “Roscosmos has yet to identify the root cause of the cracks, making it difficult to analyze or predict future crack formation and growth.”

NASA and Russia have managed to maintain a partnership with the space station since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The large American segment relies on the Russian segment for propulsion to maintain the station’s altitude and maneuver to avoid debris. Since the invasion, the United States could have taken overt measures to mitigate this, such as funding the development of its own propulsion module or increasing the budget for the construction of new commercial space stations to maintain a presence in low Earth orbit.

Instead, top NASA officials opted to stay the course and work with Russia for as long as possible to maintain the fragile partnership and fly the aging but venerable International Space Station. It remains to be seen whether cracks (structural, diplomatic or otherwise) will break this effort before the station’s planned retirement date in 2030.

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