NASA, Russia stress that space partnership remains strong after Nauka incident at space station

A view of the docking port for the Russian Multipurpose Research Module (MLM), also known as Nauka. After docking July 29, 2021, Nauka suffered a software glitch that resulted in the space station spinning and losing "attitude control."
A view of the docking port for the Russian Multipurpose Research Module (MLM), also known as Nauka. After docking July 29, 2021, Nauka suffered a software glitch that resulted in the space station spinning and losing "attitude control." (Image credit: Thomas Pesquet/ESA/NASA)

Following a serious incident at the International Space Station last Thursday (July 29), Russia and the U.S. have reaffirmed their partnership and shared next steps to move forward. 

On Thursday, Russia's long-awaited Nauka research module docked with the orbiting lab. But the new module soon hit troubles as, just a few hours after docking, its thrusters began to fire unexpectedly, pulling the module away from the station and causing the space station to lose what engineers call "attitude control," spinning out of its normal orientation. 

Ground teams from NASA and Russia's space agency Roscosmos back on Earth, as well as the seven astronauts on the station, worked to quickly remedy the situation, using countermeasures and opposing thrusters from other parts of the station to push the station back to its proper orientation. And now, Roscosmos and NASA officials are speaking out about what needs to happen next and what this event says about the future of U.S. and Russian collaboration in space. 

Related: Russia's Nauka module tilts space station with unplanned thruster fire

Both Roscosmos and NASA have stated that there doesn't appear to be any damage caused by the incident, and the astronauts on board the station were never in danger. Additionally, Roscosmos has now shared that "specialists" will further look into the event and the possible implications that it might have. 

Roscosmos' director of crewed space programs, Sergei Krikalev, emphasized in an interview on Russian state television that "it's up to specialists to assess how we have stressed the station and what the consequences are," the Associated Press reported

"The station is a rather delicate structure," he continued, "and both the Russian and the U.S. segments are built as light as possible … an additional load stressed the drivers of solar batteries and the frames they are mounted on. Specialists will analyze the consequences, and it is too early to talk about how serious it was, but it was an unforeseen situation that requires a detailed study."

Roscosmos' investigation into the incident is not a surprise, and was anticipated by NASA. 

"We expected Roscosmos to set up a commission to investigate the event, determine root cause and any impacts on their systems. NASA has had its engineering teams reviewing station systems since the event, and all preliminary analysis shows that the station is functioning normally," a NASA representative shared with, referencing similar comments made by NASA space station program manager Joel Montalbano after the July 29 incident. 

While the situation caused by Nauka's unexpected malfunction certainly sparked concern for the astronauts on board as well as many back down on Earth, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he's confident in the ongoing, collaborative relationship between the U.S. and Russia in space. 

"I know that you and your team have been working around the clock in recent days to ensure that Nauka was safely docked and integrated into ISS operations and I would like to commend you for your stellar efforts," Nelson said in a letter to Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin. "Space cooperation continues to be a hallmark of U.S.-Russia relations and I have no doubt that our joint work reinforces the ties that have bound our collaborative efforts over the many years." 

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Nelson reiterated his confidence in U.S./Russian relations in spaceAug. 3 during his keynote address for the International Space Station Research and Development Conference. 

"Last week we had a bit of an unplanned excitement with the docking of the Roscosmos new science laboratory module," Nelson said. "Thankfully, our relationship with the Russians … has continued and has been one of collaboration and partnership. And our ISS operations team was able to work with them."

He continued, stating that "we [NASA] have worked and collaborated with the Russians for decades and thus, it ensured the safety of the crew and the return of the ISS to the correct attitude quickly."

Citing previous successes from international collaborations, such as the space station's Canadian-built robotic arm, Nelson shared his excitement for the Nauka module and what it brings to the station. "The successful addition of the multipurpose laboratory module, it does well for our continued collaboration with the Russians. And so I'm excited for what the future brings," he said. 

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.