According to NASA flight controllers, an unusual and potentially dangerous situation occurred Thursday at the International Space Station when the newly docked Russian Nauka module accidentally fired its thrusters, causing a “tug of war” with the space station and briefly pushing it out of position.
Nauka, a long-delayed laboratory module launched to the International Space Station by Russian space agency Roscosmos last week, inadvertently fired its thrusters after docking with the International Space Station on Thursday morning.
The space station lost attitude control (the angle at which the ISS is supposed to stay oriented) for nearly an hour, and ground controllers lost communications with the seven astronauts currently aboard the ISS for 11 minutes during the ordeal, according to NASA officials. NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos are currently conducting a joint investigation.
The head of NASA’s International Space Station Program, Joel Montalbano, insists that the astronauts were never in danger and that no damage to the ISS has been noticed. However, NASA’s Mission Control in Houston, Texas, asked them to look out the windows of the space station at one point to see if there was any debris or damage to the station.
The incident also pushed back the launch of the uncrewed Boeing Starliner test flight to the station, which had been scheduled for Friday.
NASA says that the move will give them the “International Space Station team time to continue working checkouts of the newly arrived Roscosmos’ Nauka module and to ensure the station will be ready for Starliner’s arrival.”
“Spaceflight is hard, and when we bring on new capabilities there can be glitches, which is why we prepare and train for these contingencies,” NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate associate administrator Kathy Lueders said.
NASA officials quickly downplayed the incident’s gravity, calling it a “pretty exciting hour” and a “dynamic event.”
“Until you exhaust all your contingency plans, that’s when you start to worry and today we just weren’t there,” said Montalbano.
Despite this, Montalbano acknowledged that the space station’s thrusters have only been accidentally fired “maybe three or four times” in the 20 years it has been in orbit.
Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator during the Obama administration, called the incident “a reminder that our lack of knowledge about the capabilities of our Russian partners is an uncontrollable risk. I’m not sure we would have allowed one of our commercial partners to dock with (the) station if they had just experienced the problems we heard about with this module in advance.”