Is a rogue as­tro­naut try­ing to SAB­O­TAGE the Space Sta­tion?

It’s one tiny hole in the cap­sule, but one gi­ant mys­tery for mankind ...

Daily Mail - - News - by John Naish

On a space sta­tion some 250 miles above the earth, as­tro­nauts sud­denly find their lives in peril when one of their num­ber goes qui­etly in­sane and starts se­cretly drilling tiny holes in the walls of their frag­ile craft.

Pre­cious oxy­gen leaks out into the sur­round­ing abyss un­de­tected, slowly the pres­sure in­side starts to fall as the crew go about their business, obliv­i­ous to their po­ten­tial fate, and then . . .

Yes, it sounds like the plot line of a sci­ence fic­tion B-movie, but ac­cord­ing to Rus­sian space au­thor­i­ties this is one of the pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios un­fold­ing right now.

They claim a 2mm hole de­tected in the body of a Rus­sian Soyuz MS mod­ule docked at the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion (ISS) might have been drilled de­lib­er­ately — and they are not rul­ing out the pos­si­bil­ity that one of the as­tro­nauts was the per­pe­tra­tor.

The ISS, with its huge so­lar pan­els span­ning the size of a soc­cer pitch, is the largest sin­gle struc­ture hu­mans have ever put into space and was largely as­sem­bled in or­bit be­tween 1998 and 2011.

But with ac­com­mo­da­tion for a max­i­mum of six as­tro­nauts, it is no place to be cooped up with a men­tally unstable crew mem­ber who may be bent on mur­der/sui­cide while or­bit­ing the Earth at some 17,150mph (about five miles per sec­ond).

Within its claus­tro­pho­bic con­fines, the crew mem­bers — two Rus­sian cos­mo­nauts, three nasa as­tro­nauts and a Ger­man from the Euro­pean Space agency — must now be eye­ing each other’s ev­ery move.

The alarm was first raised last week, when mis­sion con­trollers in Hous­ton and Moscow no­ticed a fall in cabin pres­sure on the ISS. as­tro­nauts tasked with find­ing the cause then dis­cov­ered the hole in the Rus­sian mod­ule cur­rently con­nected to it.

If the hole had not been found, the as­tro­nauts would have run out of air in 18 days. Thank­fully, it was small enough to be fixed us­ing special seal­ing tape.

Ini­tially, im­pact from space de­bris or a tiny me­te­orite, a man­u­fac­tur­ing fault, or struc­tural fa­tigue were blamed.

But af­ter an in­ves­ti­ga­tion led by Dmitry Ro­gozin, head of Rus­sia’s Roscos­mos space agency, a more sin­is­ter cause emerged: de­lib­er­ate sab­o­tage, very pos­si­bly by a crew mem­ber.

The ev­i­dence in this or­bital who­dun­nit would be wor­thy of a space-age agatha Christie novel.

FIRST, the hole does not look ac­ci­den­tal. ‘There were sev­eral at­tempts at drilling,’ Ro­gozin said this week, adding that the drill ap­peared to have been held by a ‘ wa­ver­ing hand’. It has since been con­firmed that the ISS has a drill on board that is ca­pa­ble of mak­ing the hole.

So we have the weapon, the act and the op­por­tu­nity. But what about mo­tive? It seems in­con­ceiv­able some­one who’s made the grade as an as­tro­naut — hav­ing passed bat­ter­ies of psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal tests — could think of wreak­ing such a heinous act of de­struc­tion.

How­ever, a grow­ing body of re­search is find­ing that even the most psy­cho­log­i­cally ro­bust brains can crack up amid the rigours of space.

It is not only the pres­sures of phys­i­cal con­fine­ment and dan­ger that tor­ment the psy­che of as­tro­nauts. Still more wor­ry­ing is the dam­age mi­cro-grav­ity and cos­mic ra­di­a­tion can wreak on hu­man grey mat­ter, and the patho­log­i­cal be­hav­iours that this may cause.

In­deed, con­sid­er­ing more than 230 as­tro­nauts have spent up to 15 months on the sta­tion, it’s sur­pris­ing there haven’t been re­ports of psy­cho­log­i­cal break­down.

The ISS pro­vides many op­por­tu­ni­ties for sci­en­tific in­ves­ti­ga­tion, not least how the hu­man mind and body change in space to help space agen­cies pre­pare for pro­longed fu­ture mis­sions to the moon, Mars or beyond.

as­tro­nauts have shown ev­i­dence of po­ten­tially dis­abling changes to their mus­cles, bones, hearts and eyes af­ter lengthy pe­ri­ods in space, while a nasa-backed study by sci­en­tists at the Brookhaven na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory in new York has warned brain dam­age from ra­di­a­tion may af­fect emo­tions.

Writ­ing in the jour­nal Ex­per­i­men­tal neu­rol­ogy, they said pro­longed ex­po­sure to cos­mic ra­di­a­tion at­tacks stem cells in the part of the brain re­spon­si­ble for con­trol­ling mood and emo­tions. The brain dam­age gets worse the deeper one ven­tures into space.

Other stud­ies have found ev­i­dence of men­tal in­ter­fer­ence and hal­lu­ci­na­tions caused by space ra­di­a­tion.

Dur­ing a 2012 mis­sion on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, as­tro­naut Don Pet­tit de­scribed be­ing haunted by ‘flashes . . . like lu­mi­nous danc­ing fairies’. Tests showed that they were caused by cos­mic rays ‘zap­ping’ through the nerves in his eyes and brain.

The phys­i­cal dam­age from cos­mic ra­di­a­tion may cause de­men­tia-like im­pair­ments, too, ac­cord­ing to an­i­mal stud­ies.

In 2015, ra­di­a­tion ex­perts at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine, bom­barded lab­o­ra­tory rats with cos­mic lev­els of ra­di­a­tion and found brain tis­sue be­came badly in­flamed. This com­pro­mised com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween brain cells in a man­ner sim­i­lar to the rav­ages of alzheimer’s dis­ease.

If you add to this the psy­cho­log­i­cal strain of be­ing cooped up with sev­eral others in deep space for months, then it does not make for a happy ship.

One Rus­sian cos­mo­naut aboard the MIR space sta­tion (which op­er­ated from 1986 to 2001) recorded that in­ter­per­sonal con­flicts took up 30 per cent of the crew’s time.

In a 110- day space- travel sim­u­la­tion in 1999, two Rus­sian vol­un­teers got in a fight so vi­o­lent that it quite lit­er­ally left blood on the walls. For­tu­nately, their cap­sule had never left Earth and sci­en­tists could gain ac­cess to sep­a­rate them.

Dur­ing the amer­i­can Sky­lab 4 mis­sion in 1973, dis­agree­ments and ex­haus­tion caused the crew to switch off their ra­dio link and spend a day ig­nor­ing nasa while or­bit­ing Earth, giv­ing two fin­gers (fig­u­ra­tively at least) out of the win­dow.

SO COULD sim­i­lar emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems be trig­ger­ing ir­ra­tional be­hav­iour by a crew mem­ber aboard the ISS? Or, as some Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties main­tain, was the hole the re­sult of dam­age dur­ing test­ing at Baikonur cos­mod­rome in Kaza­khstan be­fore the mod­ule left Earth?

Rogue en­gi­neers then might have tried to cover up the prob­lem. ‘Some­one may have messed up and then got scared and sealed up the hole,’ a space in­dus­try source has spec­u­lated, and then the sealant ‘dried up and fell off’ when the Soyuz reached the ISS.

This sounds like the bodge-work of cow­boy builders, rather than lead­ing space tech­nol­o­gists.

In­ter­est­ingly, how­ever, the drill­hole is in a sec­tion of the Soyuz mod­ule dis­carded in or­bit and not used to carry crew back to Earth.

If it was caused de­lib­er­ately, the per­pe­tra­tor may have be­come des­per­ate to leave the space sta­tion and so de­cided to in­flict dam­age to force an emer­gency evac­u­a­tion — but not in a way that would pre­vent a safe re­turn to Earth.

In­deed, Maxim Su­rayev, a Rus­sian MP and a for­mer cos­mo­naut, has sug­gested ex­actly that sce­nario.

‘We are all hu­man and any­one might want to go home, but this method is re­ally low,’ said Su­rayev, who spent two tours on the ISS. ‘I wish to God this is a pro­duc­tion de­fect, al­though that’s very sad, too. If a cos­mo­naut pulled this strange stunt, it’s re­ally bad.’

What­ever the cause, it will be some time be­fore it is defini­tively iden­ti­fied. The Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties have es­tab­lished a com­mis­sion seek­ing to identify the cul­prit by name, call­ing it a ‘ mat­ter of hon­our’ for En­ergiya, the com­pany that makes the Soyuz.

In the mean­time, look up­wards and pity the six as­tro­nauts who are pos­si­bly trapped to­gether in a web of sus­pi­cion.

at night, the ISS is vis­i­ble to the naked eye as it cir­cles the Earth once ev­ery 90 min­utes. It re­minds me of an old avi­a­tors’ adage, of­ten re­cited when wit­ness­ing a fel­low flyer in trou­ble: ‘Thank God you’re down here look­ing up there, rather than up there look­ing down here.’

Mys­tery: The Soyuz cap­sule, top left, and three of the ISS crew

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