A hole in NASA-Roscosmos relations

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This article originally appeared in the Sept. 24, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Dmitry Rogozin, a noted hawk and sanctioned Russian defense official, to head up the Roscosmos space corporation in May, the decision turned heads in the West. Rogozin is anything but a diplomat, and his agency’s relationship with NASA stands as perhaps the only functioning aspect of U.S.-Russia bilateral relations.

Since assuming his post this summer, Rogozin has been busy focusing on the ongoing internal efforts to reform and reenergize Russia’s struggling space industry — plagued by a decade-long string of launch failures, corruption scandals, and quality control issues at nearly every level. The only Russian vehicles spared from these woes, it seemed, were the Soyuz spacecraft.

For one reason or another that all changed in late August when astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station detected a minor, but steady decrease in air pressure. The station, which has been operated in low Earth orbit for nearly 20 years without any major incidents, had sprung a leak. The crew quickly isolated the problem to the Soyuz orbital module.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine made his first official visit to the agency's Kennedy Space Center on Monday, Aug. 6, 2018. Credit: NASA photo by Kim Shiflett
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine made his first official visit to the agency’s Kennedy Space Center on Monday, Aug. 6, 2018. Credit: NASA photo by Kim Shiflett

What followed was perhaps the first time a major rift appeared between NASA and Roscosmos on day-to-day operation of the space station. Despite NASA’s request for time to study the problem before sealing the patch, Moscow mission control ordered its cosmonauts to proceed with a quick a fix. Meanwhile, Rogozin inserted his trademark bluster into the space partnership.

Calling the issue a “matter of honor” for the Soyuz spacecraft’s manufacturer, RSC Energia, Rogozin said Roscosmos had launched an investigation to identify the cause and culprit behind the hole. While Rogozin did not rule out a production mishap, he forwarded another, more bizarre take: deliberate sabotage by an ISS crewmember.

“There were several attempts at drilling,” Rogozin noted Sept. 3. “What is this, a production defect or some premeditated action? We are checking the Earth-based version, but there is another possibility we have not ruled out: deliberate interference in space,” Rogozin added, pointing out scuff marks around the hole suggesting it was made with an unsteady hand.

On the ground, the suspicion and paranoia driving broader relations are bleeding into outer space. Reading between the lines, many in the Russian media began to openly speculate that an American astronaut entered the Soyuz without authorization and sabotaged the vehicle.

As one Russian source close to Roscosmos described the situation to SpaceNews, the six-man ISS crew — three NASA astronauts, two Russians and one European — now find themselves in a situation resembling Agatha Christie’s novel, “Murder on the Orient Express.” There is little dispute that someone, somewhere, drilled a hole in Soyuz. No one knows when, who or why.

Predictably, in Russia’s current hyper-charged anti-Western media and political environment, such speculation quickly took on a life of its own and continues to proliferate. Outside observers may have scratched their heads in the face of such speculation, but it is well in keeping with the prevailing mood of anti-Western conspiracy thinking in current Russian political discourse.

To their credit, Rogozin and other officials have since attempted to clamp down on speculation of American sabotage. Most recently, Rogozin’s successor in government, Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov — himself a former deputy defense minister — came out against such speculation as “dangerous” and “unacceptable.”

In comments carried by the TASS news agency Sept. 12, Borisov was quoted as saying, “it is by no means possible to pass such a verdict until the investigation is completed, we must wait for the final results of this effort to reveal the nature of this hole [but] the fact remains that the pressure began to fall after the ship was in space for several months.”

Officially, both sides are back to touting peaceful and normal cooperation between the two agencies. Last week, NASA and Roscosmos released a rare joint statement announcing the first meeting between Rogozin and his counterpart, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in October.

“They affirmed the necessity of further close interaction between NASA and Roscosmos technical teams in identifying and eliminating the cause of the leak,” the statement said, “as well as continuation of normal ISS operations and NASA’s ongoing support of the Roscosmos-led Soyuz investigation.”

The prevailing mood toward the United States in Moscow has certainly been a factor fueling the speculations NASA and Roscosmos now seek to tamp down. But the larger issue at play is the ever-sinking reputation of the Russian space industry, which is on a decade-long streak of embarrassing launch failures, corruption scandals, and quality control issues at nearly every level.

Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin (at right) inspects the Vostochny Cosmodrome. Credit: Roscosmos
Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin (at right) inspects the Vostochny Cosmodrome. Credit: Roscosmos

Rogozin himself said as much early on when he described allegations of a production line error as “a matter of honor” for RSC Energia — Russia’s most storied space enterprise and manufacturer of the Soyuz spacecraft. To date, Energia has been spared many of the problems plaguing other enterprises throughout the industry.

“I am sure that the hole in Soyuz was made in the factory,” says Pavel Luzin, an independent Russian space policy analyst. “Top managers have salaries up to thousands of U.S. dollars a month, while engineers and workers make at best $300-500 a month. As a result, employees at Russian space enterprises often do not demonstrate high standards of professionalism.”

There are many questions left unanswered at this point concerning the nature and origin of the hole, yet the most likely explanation — that someone on the assembly line drilled the hole, presumably by accident, and attempted to patch it — has found the least traction in the Russian press. But on Sept. 16, Interfax reported Energia had conducted its own investigation.

During that investigation, an unidentified source at Energia told Interfax, no systemic problems were uncovered on the production line. “[B]ut it was possible to identify a low level of competence among individual employees, indirectly this could lead to shortcomings in the construction of a particular Soyuz spacecraft.”

ISS crew took this photo of the unexplained hole prior to making a temporary repair. Credit: NASA via Twitter
ISS crew took this photo of the unexplained hole prior to making a temporary repair. Credit: NASA via Twitter

Interfax also reported that at least one Energia employee voluntarily resigned as a result of the internal investigation. Whatever Energia’s investigation uncovers, and whatever conclusions the Roscosmos investigation reaches when it is completed, the answer will have deep implications for both the future of NASA-Roscosmos relations and the Russian space industry as a hole.

If the problem turns out to have originated on the Energia assembly line, it will be a blow to Russia’s most successful space enterprise — and Rogozin, who lost his position as a deputy prime minister in charge of the entire Russian defense industry earlier this year, and was given charge of Roscosmos in a move that observers saw as a last chance consolation from Putin.

And the fact that American sabotage was ever seriously considered — as unidentified Roscosmos sources told the Kommersant newspaper last week — demonstrates that the walls protecting NASA and Roscosmos from the broader problems plaguing U.S.-Russia relations are withering, or at least not as strong as many assumed.