What’s Going on With Russia’s Space Program?

Was the recent ISS emergency an aberration, or a warning of things to come?

An inauspicious start: The newly arrived Nauka science module (right) alongside a Soyuz crew vehicle.

Last month, something that long-time observers of the space program thought might never happen actually took place 450 kilometers above Earth: Russia’s 20-ton Nauka (“Science”) module successfully docked to the International Space Station. It was the first expansion of the Russian segment of the station in more than a decade. All the other ISS partners largely completed construction of their facilities years ago.

As its name suggests, Nauka is designed as a laboratory, complete with a workshop, a glovebox for experiments, attachment points for exterior payloads, an airlock, and a European-built robotic arm that will allow cosmonauts to install equipment outside the station—the first such capability on the Russian segment. Nauka also adds more sleeping space for the cosmonauts and a new toilet hooked up to a sophisticated water-recycling system.

The new module launched to the station on a Proton-M rocket on July 21. After eight days of mostly silence from the Russian space agency Roskosmos about Nauka’s trouble-laden trek to its destination and nerve-racking final approach to the ISS the successful docking was met with fanfare in Moscow. “Starting today, foreigners are learning to pronounce a new Russian word—Nauka,” declared Roskosmos head Dmitry Rogozin. Meanwhile, on Russian social media an army of online trolls went into overdrive to trumpet the success.

Just three hours later, though, the mood turned dramatically. People monitoring communications from the station heard alarming reports from the cosmonauts reporting that Nauka’s thrusters were firing for no reason, sending the entire station into an uncontrolled cartwheel. Live broadcasts from orbit showed a blizzard of flakes outside the station—apparent engine exhaust. There were some tense moments on the ground as other station modules had to be fired to counter the unexpected thrust and bring the station back under control. The emergency ended only when Nauka ran out of fuel.

The inadvertent engine firings, which could have damaged the $100 billion ISS, were the result of a software error. Another programming mistake days earlier had also caused propulsion problems, wasting fuel and leaving mission controllers only one attempt at docking.

As usual, Roskosmos has been mostly silent about the mishaps, leaving it largely to independent researchers to sort out what actually happened. Coincidently, the Russian Duma is now preparing a law that would criminalize virtually any reporting on Russian space and military activities.

What has happened to Russia’s once elite human spaceflight program?

Nauka’s journey, like other events in the international spotlight, even the Olympics, are now treated in Russia as part of a propaganda war with the West. Every Kremlin success, no matter how small, is overhyped. Any hint of corruption or mismanagement is glossed over or hidden from view. Often, blame is shifted to the United States or elsewhere. In a post-docking interview that aired on a Russian TV show known for its ultra-nationalist rhetoric, Rogozin blamed Ukrainian-built bellows in Nauka’s propellant tanks for the module’s propulsion problems.

In truth, Nauka’s dangerous post-docking failure was only the latest snafu in a long string of embarrassing technical problems that have plagued the project over three decades. The pervasive software issues were only part of a drama that included changing contractors and major redesigns of Soviet-era systems whose warranties expired years before they had a chance to fly.

Nauka is the last Russian spacecraft that can trace its roots to a transport ship known as TKS, which was developed in the 1960s and ’70s by the collective of the prolific Soviet space pioneer Vladimir Chelomei. The TKS was originally intended for the top-secret Soviet military space station called Almaz. The same design was later used for the modules of the Mir space station, and was then adopted for the first Russian piece of the ISS.

In the 1990s, as the components of the international station were being built around the world, the hardware that eventually became Nauka was planned for launch before the end of that decade. But various financial and technical problems kept it and the rest of the Russian segment on the ground for nearly a quarter of a century.

In the early 2010s, engineers found severe contamination in the module’s critical propulsion system, reportedly the result of workers mistakenly thinking they were supposed to dismantle it. All attempts to fully clear the system failed, but after years of delays, Nauka’s engines were certified to fly anyway. In the final days before launch, Nauka had to be taken off the fueling facility because press photos of the module posted on the Internet revealed the lack of thermal blankets on critical flight control sensors. The blankets had to be urgently fashioned from leftover materials.

What’s next for the troubled science module?

Nauka arrives at an awkward time, as the ISS is approaching an uncertain retirement date. With the Kremlin’s long-proclaimed lunar exploration program stalled by money problems, Russian officials have switched to talking about building a new station in a different orbit from the ISS, although no new money has been allocated to the project so far. This proposed smaller facility would be visited only occasionally by cosmonauts, and could overfly the strategically important Arctic region if multiple technical issues associated with the new orbit can be resolved. In the new orbit, the future Russian station could be reached by crew vehicles and cargo ships spacecraft launched from Russia, rather than from Kazakhstan, as with vehicles bound for the ISS.

Under these circumstances, adding more Russian modules to the current station would seem to make no sense. Yet Roskosmos has kept the next module, called Prichal (“Pier”), on schedule for a launch to the ISS this November. Beyond that, another major component is currently under construction in Russia. This upgraded new-generation version of Nauka, known as the Science and Power Module or NEM, was intended to make the Russian segment truly independent from the rest of the ISS in terms of energy supplies and flight control.

However, this year, Roskosmos publicly committed to making the NEM the core of the new station rather than send it to the ISS. After a closed-door meeting on July 26, the Council of Chief Designers—which has charted the direction of Russia’s space program since the days of Sputnik—deferred all critical questions about the post-ISS base to some unspecified future.

That means Nauka and Prichal may have a relatively short life in orbit compared to their predecessors. And flight controllers on both sides of the world will be left hoping there are no more in-space emergencies like the one that happened last month.

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