Is a rogue astronaut trying to SABOTAGE the Space Station?
It’s one tiny hole in the capsule, but one giant mystery for mankind ...
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