NASA ponders SpaceX astronaut rescue as backup after Soyuz leak: report

Crew Dragon with its docking mechanism open, with the Earth in behind
The SpaceX Crew Dragon Endurance approaches the International Space Station with four Crew-5 astronauts aboard on Oct. 6, 2022. (Image credit: NASA/Kjell Lindgren)

NASA might use a SpaceX spacecraft to rescue three space station crew members depending on a leaky Soyuz to get home, a report suggests.

The Soyuz spacecraft on the International Space Station suffered a severe coolant leak on Dec. 15 and a decision about whether it is safe to send the crew back to Earth on it will come in January, Russia has said. If a rescue Soyuz craft is needed it could only come in February, two or three weeks before the normal changeover in March.

NASA is apparently considering using SpaceX, the only company currently flying astronauts into space from American soil, as a backup if these options don't work out.

"We have asked SpaceX a few questions on their capability to return additional crew members on Dragon if necessary, but that is not our prime focus at this time," NASA spokesperson Sandra Jones said in a statement to Reuters (opens in new tab), published Wednesday (Dec. 28). SpaceX did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

Related: Hole in leaky Soyuz spacecraft not caused by Geminid meteor

NASA did not clarify with Reuters what options with SpaceX might be possible, such as whether the company could launch a backup Crew Dragon spacecraft to pick up the crew, or add more seats to the existing Dragon (called Endeavour) docked at the space station.

All seats on Endeavour are nominally full, as it is supposed to bear home Crew-5 in early 2023, including NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina.

The crew that was using the affected Soyuz, called MS-22, includes Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin, and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, each of whom came to space in a Russian Sokol spacesuit. Normally, SpaceX only launches crew members who have been fitted for a custom-made SpaceX spacesuit. How this issue would be overcome was also not addressed in the report.

Related: How SpaceX's sleek spacesuit changes astronaut fashion from the space shuttle era

SpaceX Crew-5 astronauts wear custom spacesuits prepared for them before launch.  (Image credit: SpaceX)

The cause of the leak on Soyuz MS-22 has not yet been determined, but it could originate from space debris or a micrometeroid that was unable to be tracked due to the small size. Follow-up scans of the Soyuz showed a hole in its radiator exterior.

The ISS crew is in no immediate danger from the situation, but the concern comes if the complex had to be evacuated for whatever reason, as for the time being, it is possible that three individuals have no safe ride home.

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace

  • NiMo
    This does raise some worrying questions about what contingencies are in place in the horrifying event that the station had to be evacuated within 48 hours, especially when most of the major political powers with the ability to get to space are stuck in political and physical wars. I'm assuming there's ways for those on board to hunker down in sections, but probably for only so long before they run out of power, air and water, and then what? I don't think we should panic about the current situation, but it really does raise some dire warnings and possibly eerie foreshadowing....
    Reply
  • Ameriman
    Bloated, pork driven Federal Agency NASA cynically pushed nationalistic ‘Space Station Freedom’ until it became easier to get congressional funding for ‘International Space Station’… leveraging the ‘don’t let our partners down’ manipulation. ISS has been astronomically expensive with basically zero space science, exploration or engineering gains.. Another dead end self-serving NASA boondoggle. #defundIss #defundNasa
    Reply