Hear how NASA alerted astronauts to incoming space debris after Russian anti-satellite test

Newly released audio shows the quick scramble the Expedition 66 crew undertook to get to safety following an anti-satellite test on Monday (Nov. 15).

A Russian impactor was deliberately smashed into a defunct Soviet satellite, Cosmos 1408, causing a cloud of debris that came unexpectedly close to the International Space Station early that morning.

The audio (opens in new tab) features a conversation between NASA astronaut and flight engineer Mark Vande Hei, who is on his second long-term duration flight in space.

"Sorry for the early call," the unnamed ground controller says; it probably was a fellow astronaut, as capcoms (capsule communicators) are generally tasked with such duties. "We were recently informed of a satellite breakup," the controller continues, "and need to have you start reviewing the safe haven procedure."

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The Expedition 66 crew poses for a portrait at the International Space Station, on Nov. 12, 2021. From left: Pyotr Dubrov of Roscosmos; Thomas Marshburn of NASA; Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos; Raja Chari, Mark Vande Hei and Kayla Barron, all from NASA; and Matthias Maurer from ESA.

The Expedition 66 crew poses for a portrait at the International Space Station, on Nov. 12, 2021. From left: Pyotr Dubrov of Roscosmos; Thomas Marshburn of NASA; Anton Shkaplerov of Roscosmos; Raja Chari, Mark Vande Hei and Kayla Barron, all from NASA; and Matthias Maurer from ESA. (Image credit: NASA)

Within seconds, Vande Hei calmly returns the call and repeats back the instructions that ground control gives, to confirm the instructions and make sure that he heard them correctly. (This is standard operating procedure among astronauts and Mission Control during emergencies, to make sure instructions are understood.)

The audio shows that the crew was asked to implement "safe haven procedures," including moving to their return spacecraft and closing hatches to radial modules on the station. These hatches included Columbus, Kibo, the Permanent Multipurpose Module (aka Nauka), Bigelow Expandable Activity Module and Quest Joint Airlock, NASA said in a statement (opens in new tab).

Later in the audio, the crew is advised on what to do if a piece of debris hits the SpaceX Crew Dragon, which is the return craft for four of the seven crewmembers. Mission Control advises that if the spacecraft is hit, to return first to the ISS to await further instructions, which Vande Hei confirms.

The crew took shelter twice during the Monday morning event, which was later condemned by both the U.S. State Department and NASA administrator Bill Nelson, who said there will be a substantial additional risk to exploration in low Earth orbit. Both Roscosmos and the Russian government, conversely, have denied that the incident posed risk to the ISS.

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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