As you may recall, a low-pressure leak occurred aboard the International Space Station in late August. Eventually the crews traced the leak to the orbital module of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that had arrived at the station in June. After the problem was traced to what appears to be a manufacturing defect, the head of Russia's space program essentially called for the head of whoever made the error.
Now, however, something entirely new is afoot in Russia. A growing number of Russian publications have been putting forth an absurd new theory—that a NASA astronaut deliberately caused the leak on board the station in order to force the evacuation of a sick crew member. The story has spread like wildfire during the last 24 hours, according to Robinson Mitchell, who translates Russian space stories for Ars.
One of the most prominent articles was published Wednesday in Kommersant, which says Russian investigators are vigorously pursuing the claim that Americans may have damaged the Soyuz deliberately. Publicly, Roscosmos leader Dmitry Rogozin was quoted as saying about Russia's investigation into the leak, “Results we have received do not give us an objective picture. The situation is much more complex than we earlier thought.”
Privately, however, several sources from the space agency are leaking much juicier comments to the Russian media. “Our Soyuz is next to the Rassvet (Dawn) module, right next to the hatch into the American segment of the station," one source told Kommersant. "Access to our ship is possible only with the permission of our commander, but we cannot exclude an unsanctioned access by the Americans."
The working theory goes something like this: one of the American crew members—there are three presently on board the station: Commander Drew Feustel, Ricky Arnold, and Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor—got ill sometime in August. To leave the station would have required the departure of three astronauts and cosmonauts, because a Soyuz cannot depart without a full crew, as this would not leave enough seats for an emergency evacuation. The motive for the sabotage seems to be that NASA did not want to pay the entire cost of a new Soyuz, probably about $85 million.
Therefore, to force the evacuation but not have to pay for the cost of an additional Soyuz to fly to the station, a NASA astronaut drilled a hole in the orbital module of one of the Soyuz spacecraft. This would not have been a significant problem for reentry, because the orbital module is discarded before the spacecraft enters the atmosphere. As evidence of this, the Russian sources say there were several "drill marks" around the leak site, which is indicative of someone drilling without support in microgravity.
According to the reports, this "Version B" theory is now a priority investigation by a special commission set up by Roscosmos after the leak. The commission has reportedly sought American video recordings from on board the station as well as information on medical conditions of the current crew members.
Unfortunately, the Russians do not anticipate cooperation due to medical privacy reasons. One of Kommersant's sources noted, “But if they do happen to provide the information, then any additional questions regarding their implication in the incident would be superfluous.”
ISS commander strongly denies
NASA officials have refused to provide any public comments on the issue because they don't want to be drawn into the story. However, in a space-to-ground interview with ABC News on Tuesday, the NASA astronaut who commands the station, Drew Feustel, strongly denied the notion that he or any crew member would have caused this problem. "I can unequivocally say that the crew had nothing to do with this on orbit, without a doubt, and I think it's actually a shame and somewhat embarrassing that anybody is wasting any time talking about something that the crew was involved in," Feustel said.
The theory of a NASA astronaut or anyone on board the station taking out a drill to puncture the atmosphere of the orbiting laboratory is ridiculous. This seems to be some kind of play by Rogozin to deflect public attention (and that of his boss, Vladimir Putin) away from the fact that Russia's space manufacturing program isn't what it once was. The political fallout from this will be fascinating to watch, because rarely have we seen such a dispute between Roscomos and NASA, which generally have an excellent working relationship.