The Nauka Incident: Deja Vu All Over Again In Space

Space Station Incident Demands Independent Investigation, Jim Oberg, IEEE Spectrum

"How close the station had come to disaster is an open question, and the flight director humorously alluded to it in a later tweet that he'd never been so happy as when he saw on external TV cameras that the solar arrays and radiators were still standing straight in place. And any excessive bending stress along docking interfaces between the Russian and American segments would have demanded quick leak checks. But even if the rotation was "simple," the undeniably dramatic event has both short term and long-term significance for the future of the space station. And it has antecedents dating back to the very birth of the ISS in 1997."

Keith's note: The first person I thought of when this happened was Jim Oberg. Back in the 90s Jim and I were tag teaming coverage of things that happened on board Mir as part of the Phase 1 effort to build a joint U.S./Russian space station out of what was once Mir-2 and Space Station Freedom. NASA was not happy with what we reported. Much of what we uncovered spoke to bad communications between the U.S. and Russian teams, an underlying level of distrust, and a lot of ad hoc decision making. But the over-arching intent on both sides was to make things work - since things simply had to work - and to put forth that unified front - especially when things got rocky.

These items from 1997 come to mind:

Charlie Harlan's Thoughts on Spaceflight Safety, 29 June 1997

"When NASA originally began the Shuttle/Mir Program, no rigorous safety analysis or risk analysis was accomplished. NASA decided based on the then understood historical performance of safe Mir operations to accept that record as a given. This was done by a subjective review process unlike the systematic safety and reliability analytical techniques utilized for U.S. human spaceflight. If you remember, at that time the Russians were not always forthright about their systems failures or some of the problems they had in the past. The decision was made at the highest levels of NASA, and the formal safety analysis that was established for the Phase I Program was only for the new joint operations activities, new experiments, and new procedures. The acceptance of the existing Mir safety record was driven by management judgment, and therefore for formal and structured documented risk baseline exists for the start of the program. It should be very clear to everyone that the risk level to human safety on the Mir Station has increased somewhat since the early management decisions and agreements were made."

Better-Cheaper-Faster: The Risk of Being Open and Honest (Part 1), 16 July 1997

"Instead, PAO reverts to its least open behavior on the Shuttle/Mir program. A harbinger of things to come on ISS? Individuals who are allowed to speak for NASA are thoroughly briefed so as to know what NOT to say. Press releases are diluted and sanitized. I get all the internal NASA email, so I see what doesn't make it on TV - or the press wires. I hear all the stories from frustrated program managers who speak of PAO saying things such as "why do they need to know this" or "we'd rather not let that out right now".

Keith's note: Echoes from the past. Example: the sanitized stuff that dribbled out of NASA PAO after the Nauka event designed to minimize details as to what actually happened and to accentuate the level of cooperation between the U.S., Russia, and other ISS partners. I guess we'll have to wait for one of those one hour Aerospace Safety Advisory Committee telecon meetings at some point in the future - the sort of meeting NASA PAO never announces - where the truth will start to dribble out - as it did after Mir and other accidents.

Jim also recounts the rocky first hours of the launch of FGB-1 - aka Zarya - on 20 November 1998. It refused to obey firing commands and the U.S. was kept in the dark for a while. Flash forward to 2021 and its twin - Nauka - originally built as FGB-2 as the back up for FGB-1 (paid for by the U.S.) had similar problems once reaching space.

To be certain the International Space Station program has been a resounding success overall and future international efforts could do well to learn from it. Given the continued bad blood between the U.S. and Russia it is astonishing that the ISS has managed to exist - literally and politically - above the fray of terrestrial squabbles. Indeed, it has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize as a result - an idea I personally thing is worth pursuing. I am one of the 100,000+ people who designed and built this amazing spacecraft - one that was paid for by over a billion taxpayers. And I call it the "Undiscovered Country" since I feel its fullest potential has yet to be tapped.

But, accomplishments and potential aside, this does not mean that the picture onboard the ISS is perfect. It is not. Underneath the orbital comradery there are still problems. The ISS program just declared the first "spacecraft emergency" in its entire existence on orbit. That is big news, right? Yet NASA and Roscosmos do not want to talk about it. Why is that?

I hope Congress holds a hearing on this - just like they did after the fire and collision on Mir a quarter of a century ago. If something is broken then it needs to be fixed - even if NASA won't admit that there is a problem. And what is it they say about people and organizations who have problems? The first step is to admit that there is a problem.

Nauka Was An Accident Waiting To Happen And NASA Knew, earlier post

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on August 8, 2021 12:20 PM.

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