The Day the Space Station Lurched

Mission control in Houston first noticed it Thursday morning.

The International Space Station was adrift. The station is always moving, of course, in a circular path around the Earth. But this, what mission control was seeing in the latest data, was unexpected and puzzling. On Thursday morning, the space station suddenly and mysteriously veered off. of your course.

The massive pieces of NASA-built hardware that hold the space station in place couldn’t keep up with movement, and within minutes the station had drifted from its usual orientation.

NASA quickly turned to Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency. To counter the change, Moscow mission control ordered one of its modules on the space station to fire up its engines, then ordered a cargo ship to fire its thrusters as well. Inside the station, the astronauts reconfigured important systems. Twice, ground control lost communication with the crew for several minutes. The longer the deviated space station stayed, the more disruptive its operations, including the communication system and solar panels, could become.

[Read: A very relatable moment on the International Space Station]

It took about an hour to drag the ISS into its proper configuration and regain what its operators call attitude control. The source of the disruption was another Russian module, which had just arrived at the station. The module, a laboratory called Nauka, the Russian word for “science,” had already had a difficult journey, punctuated by propulsion and communications problems, with Russian engineers rushing to get it into the correct orbit. Several hours after it was docked, the module, reacting to a software glitch, began firing its thrusters uncontrollably, pushing the space station. When Nauka rebelled and Moscow ordered the hardware on the other side of the station to respond, the ISS found itself in what a NASA mission control operator called “a tug of war.”

At that time there were seven astronauts on board: three Americans, two Russians, a Frenchman, and a Japanese. Later, NASA told reporters that the astronauts had not felt any shaking or movement, and officials tried to assure the public that the crew was safe. “There was no immediate danger to the crew at any time,” Joel Montalbano, ISS program manager at NASA, told a news conference. “Obviously when you have a loss of attitude control, that’s something you have to address immediately, but the crew was never in an immediate emergency or anything like that.”

Montalbano and other NASA officials emphasized that agency workers are prepared for all types of emergencies and that they were not worried because they had not exhausted their contingency plans. But this shaking was a rare event; the station has experienced inadvertent firing from propellants, like Nauka’s, perhaps only three or four times in its 20-year history. And even if they are resolved quickly, without actual incidents, they are inevitably disturbing. “In my experience, people in space are always in danger”, tweeted Wayne Hale, a former flight director and manager of NASA’s space shuttle program, who experienced two fatal accidents that claimed the lives of a total of 14 people.

Nauka’s fright recalled an incident that happened in 2018, when mission controllers noticed that the space station’s air pressure had started to drop slightly, a sign of a small leak. In that case, the crew was asleep. Officials decided the pressure change was small enough not to justify waking up the astronauts. In the morning, the crew searched the station and found a small hole in a Soyuz capsule, a Russian spacecraft. Authorities said the crew was never in serious danger, but no one wants a leak of any kind on the ISS, and the hole was quickly plugged. Russian cosmonauts finally went on a spacewalk to examine the hole from the outside, but to this day, Roscosmos I will not say how do I get there.

[Read: Even astronauts binge-watch TV while in space]

So many aspects of space flight are autonomous now, including the freighters docking at the ISS and the capsule that recently took Jeff Bezos to the edge of space and back. Blue Origin passengers don’t have to fly the capsule like astronauts have in the past. Either SpaceX passengers, which go far beyond the edge of space and into orbit; Last year, when two NASA astronauts tested a SpaceX capsule up to the ISS, flew on autopilot, taking control of the vehicle for just a few minutes, just to see how it handled. (At the time, Russian officials were the concerned that SpaceX’s new flight software could malfunction and push the capsule into the station). But even today, spaceflight is far from routine and not as straightforward as recent exploits have made it seem. Yes, two billionaires have flown into space in less than a month, and yes, they made it look easy. But space travel, for both professional astronauts and tourists, remains dangerous. The futures that Bezos and Elon Musk sometimes envision – of humans living in artificial gravity stations around the Earth, or in an outpost on the Moon, or in a glass dome on Mars – are fragile in that sense. .

The ISS is one of the most impressive feats of engineering in history, assembled in orbit piece by piece by astronauts with the gall to wield a set of tools while floating in space. The station was not meant to last forever, and someday, after some tough decisions by the agencies that run it, it will be deemed too expensive or too old and, like other stations before it, will likely retreat deep into the Earth. oceans. In its two decades, the ISS has served as more than a workplace or laboratory for its rotating crews of space travelers. It is also a home; astronauts share cleaning chores, celebrate holidays together, even binge tv shows Like the rest of us. I imagine that after a few months of life on the ISS, astronauts are so used to floating that they fall asleep as easily as they would in bed on Earth. But in an instant, in the sudden dishonest firing of a module, astronauts can return to the reality of what the ISS is, a metal tube traveling at 27,000 kilometers per hour, far beyond the range of the protective atmosphere and life-giving of the Earth. . Future space travelers, whether they are traveling to the edge of space or another world, cannot lose sight of that, no matter how beautiful the view is outside the window.

This article was originally published on The Atlantic. Sign up for your Newsletter.

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