NASA still investigating space station air leak after last week’s evacuation of its segment

NASA is still investigating the slow leak of air from its segment of the International Space Station as NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy is forced to spend another night in the Russian segment of the space station. The evacuation of the NASA segment happened late last week.

NASA is still trying to identify the cause of the leak and find a method to patch it up. NASA indicated in its latest press release on Tuesday that light air leaks such as this one is nominal, “requiring routine repressurization from nitrogen tanks delivered on cargo resupply missions.” The agency was aware of the slow loss of pressure from its segment of the International Space Station back in September 2019.

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“In September 2019, NASA and its international partners first saw indications of a slight increase above the standard cabin air leak rate. Because of routine station operations like spacewalks and spacecraft arrivals and departures, it took time to gather enough data to characterize those measurements. That rate has slightly increased, so the teams are working a plan to isolate, identify, and potentially repair the source.”

Chris Cassidy
NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy snoozes in a sleeping bag in a Russian airlock on the International Space Station instead of its U.S. segment. | Image: Ivan Vagner / Roscosmos

The current crew (Expedition 63) aboard the space station consists of one NASA astronaut, Chris Cassidy, and Roscosmos cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner. The trio is currently operating in the Zvezda service module of the space station, with access to the Poisk mini-research module, the Progress 76 cargo craft, and the ?Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft.

This is reassuring news, as the crew has access to the Soyuz spacecraft they arrived with, in the unlikely case of a full emergency evacuation of the space station. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley successfully splashed down in the Crew Dragon spacecraft Endeavor on August 2, 2020, leaving the space station with the original 3-member crew of Expedition 63. NASA’s original press release on the investigation says:

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“All the space station hatches will be closed this weekend so mission controllers can carefully monitor the air pressure in each module. The test presents no safety concern for the crew. The test should determine which module is experiencing a higher-than-normal leak rate. The U.S. and Russian specialists expect preliminary results should be available for review by the end of next week.”

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Expedition 64 (SpaceX Crew-1)

It is unclear how this air leak investigation will affect the planned SpaceX Crew-1 mission carrying NASA astronauts Michael HopkinsVictor Glover, and Shannon Walker along with JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, all members of the Expedition 64 crew.

SpaceX Crew Dragon
NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover Jr. and Mike Hopkins and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi training in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for the Crew-1 mission. | Image: SpaceX

Crew-1 is currently targeting a launch date in late September. The crew of Expedition 64 will consist of the three astronauts launched aboard Soyuz MS-17 and the four astronauts launched shortly after aboard Crew-1.

SpaceX Crew-2

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NASA even announced the astronauts that will fly the Crew-2 mission. Flying Crew-2 are NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, serving as spacecraft commander and pilot, and JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, serving as mission specialists. Crew-2 is targeting liftoff in 2021.

Crew Dragon docking with the ISS. | Image: SpaceX

“The Crew-2 astronauts will remain aboard the space station for approximately six months as expedition crew members, along with three crewmates who will launch via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft,” NASA’s press release says. “The increase of the full space station crew complement to seven members – over the previous six – will allow NASA to effectively double the amount of science that can be conducted in space.”

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