Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Strange Story of the Space Station Air Leak

Last Friday, the International Space Station had an air leak.  Not a serious, "put on your suits or we have minutes to live" kind of leak, but one that would have drained the air out of the station in 14 or 15 days.  Although that article says that a hole was found in the Russian Soyuz capsule that recently docked with the station, the authors speculate that the leak was caused by a micrometeorite.  The leak was fixed with epoxy soaked gauze.  You can call that fiber reinforced plastic if you prefer. 

Since then, the Russian space agency Roscosmos has determined that it was a drill hole made while the capsule was being worked on, and have launched a search to identify the person who drilled the hole and find out why they did so.

The hole is the small one being pointed out here.  It has been described as 2mm diameter, and that looks about right.  See those scratches to the right of the hole?  Those are being taken as evidence that the drill "skated" before digging in.  Clearly they wanted to put a hole there, but we're left to speculate why.  Were they working on something else and drilled through it? 

“We are able to narrow down the cause to a technological mistake of a technician. We can see the mark where the drill bit slid along the surface of the hull,” Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, told RIA Novosti. (A translation of the Russian articles in this story was provided to Ars by Robinson Mitchell). “We want to find out the full name of who is at fault—and we will.”
Over the weekend there were initial reports that Rogozin or someone thought this was sabotage, and even talked about it being "the crew" (translation, "those Americans") and how they get burned out being in space so long.  If it was deliberate, it was laughably incompetent sabotage.  The problem was found and fixed rather quickly.  This looks more like someone made a mistake and tried to hide it rather than report it for a proper fix.  The only thing that doesn't go is just why there's any hole there at all. 
“I have conducted investigations of all kinds of spacecraft, and after landing, we discovered a hole drilled completely through the hull of a re-entry module," the former Energia employee, Viktor Minenko, said in Gazeta.RU. "But the technician didn't report the defect to anyone but sealed up the hole with epoxy. We found the person, and after a commotion he was terminated,” said Minenko.

In this case, the technician used glue instead of epoxy. As the Soyuz hull is made from an aluminum alloy, it could have been properly repaired on Earth by welding, had the technician reported the mistake.
Someone in the Soyuz facility is going to be nervous about their continued employment.   From the bigger picture, if workers who make mistakes on manned spacecraft are afraid to report a mistake and do this sort of amateurish fix, that's a seriously broken company and you don't want them working on manned spacecraft. 

I have no idea where this hole is located on the Soyuz capsule, but marks like that don't come from drilling with a drill press, they come from a handheld drill and poor shop practices.  Even a portable drill should be able to drill without the skate marks if the tech started with a center drill and then moved to the 2mm bit. 


  1. I heard about that over Labor Day, but never followed up on it.

    An unreported screw-up like that at Boeing WILL get you fired, union or no. We took hundreds of "close-out" photos, and any time any body had physical contact with the payload unit, it was logged. U.S. policies are very strict.

    Remind me to tell you about the satellite they ran the overhead crane into at Baikonur.......

    1. Please do. Would make a very interesting story.

  2. Fortunately, the hole was in the Orbital Module and not the Descent Module.

    Considering some of the other issues found on Russian made components, this does not surprise me. What does surprise me is they are actually admitting it for once.

  3. Just run a sheet metal screw in there, and the residual leakage would fade into the background loss.

    How do you say in Russian, "What is that hissing noise?"

    1. Just run a sheet metal screw in there, and the residual leakage would fade into the background loss.

      One of those nice ones for metal roofs with the rubber washer under the head. Then find out which Russian astronaut's small child got a DeWalt drill for Christmas.

  4. Not an air leak, but when you serve on a 31 year old Navy destroyer you find out that the water doesn't always stay on the outside of the hull.
    Not a manufacturing defect, the leaks were proof that rust doesn't sleep.

    1. As a former snipe, my favorite was the LCS 2 designed without a cathodic protection system. Little crappy ship program with a lot of crappy oversight. Corrosion due to dissimilar metals in contact with seawater has been known for over a century. How a major defence contractor overlooks such a basic system, and how it gets past NAVSEA and is not discovered until the vessel is commissioned, is beyond my ken.

    2. Anonymous.
      My shore duty tour was at the Aegis site in NJ.
      I was a first class machinist mate, and during a meeting I questioned why the port and starboard cooling loops couldn't be cross connected.
      The civilian NAVSEA engineer, (I will not use his name) said, "I had the design changed to isolate the loops because the sailors would be be stupid to run it properly.")
      After I expressed my beliefs, I wasn't allowed to attend meetings any more, and the whole experience with the weapons procurement systems played at part in my leaving active duty at the eight year point.
      I'm sure that the lack of a cathodic protection system was brought up, ran aground on the rocky shores of "No input allowed," and wasn't brought up again.

  5. I would also wonder about their level of contamination control. I'm not sure if you're aware of one of the technical aspects of drilling material: the drilling process tends to generate chips or shavings. If these are not contained, they end up around the work area. And metal chips or shavings that are not removed before launch will float enthusiastically in a zero-g environment. How would you like to end up with one of those in your eyes? Or have them short out a critical electrical contact?

    Of course, there are possibilities for entertainment from FOD on orbit. One of the Spacelab missions flew monkeys and rats. At times during the mission, the astronauts opened the cages to work with the animals. One of the astronauts had also brought some raisins as a snack, and they were having fun tossing a raisin or two into the air, letting it float in zero-g, and then grabbing it with their mouth. Can you see where this is going?

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