The discovery of a small, 2mm drill hole in the Soyuz capsule attached to the International Space Station in late August sent a shock wave through both NASA and Roscosmos. The hole, which appears to have been drilled from inside the capsule, is roughly 2mm in diameter. While it never posed a risk to the astronauts and cosmonauts about the ISS, Russia promised a prompt investigation and that it would find the individuals responsible. So far, so good.
ISS Leak summary:
First thought was MMOD strike.
Then NASA released pics. Lots of people: "Hmmm, doesn't look like MMOD". NASA deleted the photos.
Top Russian news site RIA NOVOSTI reported – via sources but apparently confirmed by Mr. Rogozin – it was a drill hole. pic.twitter.com/520kHK0TMc
— Chris B – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) September 3, 2018
But a conspiracy theory has begun to spread in Russian media that these events were the result of a secret NASA plot to send a sick crew member home early. This argument has spread to the point that the commander of the ISS, Drew Feustel, has released a statement condemning the allegations. “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 in an interview with ABC News. NASA has also released a statement emphasizing that it continues to work with Roscosmos to investigate the leak and how it happened.
Would it have been possible to sabotage the Soyuz capsule in space? Not easily, according to experts. The lack of gravity and the shape of the hull at the location where the hole was drilled means there’s no way for an astronaut or cosmonaut to brace themselves while drilling — and that’s a functional requirement when working in zero-g.
“You need to push with enough force to penetrate both the fiberglass and the aluminum wall,” Pablo De Leon, professor in extravehicular activities and space suit design at the Department of Space Studies of the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, told Gizmodo. “It’s mechanically difficult to do. You have no way to secure yourself with one hand in that particular space to make the hole with the second hand.”
Two individuals could theoretically have made the hole, with one on hand to brace the driller, but at that point you’re arguing that two astronauts, both of whom have undergone extensive psychological testing and training, would put themselves and their crewmates at risk in a bid to return a third astronaut to Earth because of an undiagnosed, undisclosed, and publicly unknown medical problem severe enough to make it worth jeopardizing the entire future of the ISS. This is all supposedly because NASA doesn’t want to pay $85M for a replacement Soyuz capsule in the event the current capsule was used to return the crew to Earth.
The same anonymous sources that supposedly confirmed this information also noted that the Americans have only limited access to the Soyuz and that no access is permitted without the permission of the Russian commander — which would raise its own questions about how two astronauts in a space station with a minuscule amount of living space managed to drill through the wall of a spacecraft without anyone being the wiser.
It should be noted that conspiracy theories in Russia tend to have different characteristics than their counterparts in the United States. A full discussion of how Russian conspiracy theories take root and spread is beyond the scope of this article, but if you want to read more on the topic, we’ve linked some resources. Because outlets like Russia Today (RT) function as propaganda outlets for the Russian government, conspiracy theories in Russia are often spread directly by those in power and disseminated through official channels as opposed to emerging from the grassroots. It’s not uncommon to see multiple theories presented simultaneously. Some of you may recall that after MH17 was shot down by Russian troops operating in Ukraine as supposedly local resistance fighters, a flurry of contradictory explanations was floated, including:
- The Ukrainian government shot down the plane accidentally
- The Ukrainian government shot down the plane on purpose
- The Ukrainian government deliberately steered the aircraft into a war zone
- The Ukrainian government shot down the plane, but with an Su-25, not a Buk missile launcher
- The plane was destroyed by a Buk missile launcher, but it was fired from Zaroshchenske, not Snizhne and came from a Ukranian anti-air unit
- The passengers on MH17 were loaded on to the plane dead. Some had been dead for several days before takeoff.
The point of disseminating so many different versions of a story is to muddle and confuse the issue to the point where people conclude it’s impossible to know what really happened. In this case, it may be that Russia wants to avoid the embarrassment of acknowledging a manufacturing mistake that could have put the entire ISS crew in danger. But there is, at this point, no reason to believe the ISS leak was caused by anything more than a manufacturing mistake, likely compounded by an employee’s decision to try and patch the damage rather than admitting it.
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