Space Station Astronauts to Receive New Spacecraft After Coolant Leak

The original vehicle was deemed too dangerous for a regular trip home and will only be used in an emergency

A photo of the International Space Station with the Earth in the background
A photo of the International Space Station taken by a crewmember aboard the space shuttle orbiter Discovery in 2001.  NASA

Russia will launch a Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) to retrieve three astronauts whose original ride home was damaged in December, NASA and Russian officials said Wednesday in a news conference.

Seven astronauts currently live aboard the ISS, which orbits Earth every 90 minutes at roughly 250 miles above the ground. Last September, two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut traveled to the orbiting laboratory in Russia’s Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft. Until recently, they were scheduled to return to Earth in March with the same vehicle, which has been docked at the ISS.

But on December 14, an exterior radiator on the capsule started leaking coolant, write Vladimir Isachenkov and Marcia Dunn of the Associated Press (AP). NASA said in a statement that the MS-22 is no longer a viable return vessel for the crew under normal conditions, but it could be used in an emergency.

If a crew operated the damaged spacecraft, the main issue would be the temperature—the interiors of its equipment and crew compartments could climb as high as 104 degrees Fahrenheit during the six-hour-plus return trip, per Space.com’s Tariq Malik.

“Those temperatures … would be not healthy for the crew,” Joel Montalbano, NASA’s space station program manager, said during the news conference. Humidity and overheating of the spacecraft’s main computer are also concerns, reports Bloomberg’s Loren Grush.

Officials said Wednesday that a micrometeoroid about one millimeter wide caused the leak, per the New York Times Kenneth Chang.

Now, the Soyuz MS-23, which had been scheduled to travel to the ISS with three new astronauts in March, will instead launch without a crew on February 20 to replace the damaged spacecraft. A new additional capsule to bring the next crew won’t be ready until the late summer or fall, per the AP.

As a result, the three astronauts that flew on the MS-22 will have their mission extended as they wait for their replacements to arrive.

“They’re prepared to stay until the September launch date if that’s the case,” Montalbano said at the conference. That would extend the length of the astronauts’ stay to a year.

After the replacement capsule arrives, the damaged one will return to Earth with just some scientific experiments and cargo on board, according to the Times.

The other four astronauts aboard the ISS traveled in a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is still docked at the ISS and will eventually return its same crew. NASA has been discussing using the Crew Dragon craft to carry additional passengers in the case of an emergency, according to the agency’s statement. But the SpaceX vehicle is only designed to hold four people, notes Space.com.

Still, the current emergency plan is to use the damaged Soyuz spacecraft. “If you had to evacuate, which would be a very rare occurrence, you would go in your respective vehicles today,” Montalbano said at the conference.

“In case of an emergency, when the crew will have a real threat to life on the station, then probably the danger of staying on the station can be higher than going down in an unhealthy Soyuz,” Sergei Krikalev, Russia’s chief of crewed space programs, said during the conference.