Dealing with a hole in the International Space Station
Living in space can be tough sometimes. You’re millions of miles from home. You’re stuck with your coworkers for long stretches of time. All of your food is suction-wrapped and rationed. And sometimes, you wake up to find out that your home is slowly leaking air.
On Aug. 30, the astronauts aboard the International Space Station found out that they had been losing air all night. According to cnet.com, flight controllers had been monitoring the drop in pressure and chose to let the astronauts sleep because the leak presented no danger at the time.
Once awake, the astronauts began searching for the source of the leak; the team consisted of commander Drew Feustel, flight engineers Ricky Arnold and Serena Auñón-Chancellor, as well as Alexander Gerst, Oleg Artemyev, and Sergey Prokopyev. They eventually found a 2 millimeter wide hole in a spacecraft attached to the Russian side of the station.
According to The Telegraph, Astronaut Alexander Gerst proceeded to plug the hole with something almost every person on this planet has access to—his own thumb.
It was effective, but perhaps not the “best remedy”, admits NASA’s ground control. The astronauts later used Kapton tape and epoxy to seal the hole more permanently. Flight controllers continued to monitor the cabin and search for a long-term solution.
They also searched for the answer to another question—how did the hole get there?
The first theory blamed either a micrometeorite or a piece of space debris. Although space debris has never caused any significant damage before, experts have warned for years that it is only a matter of time. The sheer amount of junk makes such a collision inevitable; since 1957, over 5,000 launches have resulted in more than 23,000 objects in orbit around earth.
Additionally, many abandoned spacecraft have exploded or broken up, sending their pieces flying into space. Scientists estimate that there are 166 million pieces larger than 1 millimeter shooting through space at speeds of up to 30,000 mph. Of those pieces, 750,000 are estimated to be larger than 1 centimeter. At those speeds, space debris are capable of tearing through spacecraft like a bullet through human flesh, lending this theory credibility.
More conspiratorial theories have also emerged. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the small hole could have been drilled. The head of Russia’s space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, was the first to make this claim.
“It is too early to say definitely what happened,” he told the TASS news agency. “But, it seems to be done by a faltering hand…it is a technological error by a specialist. It was done by a human hand—there are traces of a drill sliding along the surface.”
So is there a saboteur aboard the ISS, biding their time and waiting for the opportune time to strike again? Possibly... but probably not.
It’s extremely difficult to drill a hole in zero gravity—nearly impossible, in fact. It’s much more likely that a worker on Earth accidentally created the hole during production. One unnamed source suggests that the craft was damaged during testing at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and someone hastily covered up the mistake.
Still, even if an astronaut somehow drilled the hole, their intentions were most likely not malicious. Russian politician Maxim Surayev says it is possible an astronaut became homesick and resorted to extreme measures in an attempt to get back to earth.
“We’re all human and anyone might want to go home,” Surayev said. “But this method is really low…I wish to God that this is a production defect, although that’s very sad too—there’s been nothing like this in the history of Soyuz ships.”
The investigation is still ongoing, but for now the astronauts are in no danger. They will continue their duties, and those of us on Earth can continue being grateful that we can't lose our oxygen to holes smaller than the widths of our thumbs.