A few hours ago the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft docked with the International Space Station. It blasted off on Friday, February 24, with the aim to replace the Soyuz MS-22, which use in safety conditions was made impossible by a failure in its cooling system. Now the mission of Dmitri Petelin, Frank Rubio, and Sergey Prokopyev could be extended for a total duration of about a year using the Soyuz MS-23 to enable them to come back to Earth.
The consequences of the problems encountered with the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft and later with the Russian Progress MS-21 space freighter are still being assessed. The first failure was attributed to the impact of a micrometeorite or space debris but two similar damages in a few days suggest possible problems in the production of the spacecraft. The Russian space agency Roscosmos is investigating and in the meantime implemented a contingency program to provide the crew of the Soyuz MS-22 with a working spacecraft for their return to Earth.
One of Roscosmos’ next decisions will concern the return of the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft. The plan is to return it to Earth around the end of March without a crew, in an automated journey. Testing the conditions aboard a spacecraft with cooling system problems can be useful to really understand how much risk the crew would face if they had to use it for an emergency evacuation. If the capsule lands properly, it will be possible to carry out a proper examination of the cooling system to obtain precise information on the cause of its failure.
The rotation schedule of the International Space Station crew traveling on Soyuz spacecraft will need to be substantially revised. Dmitri Petelin, Frank Rubio, and Sergey Prokopyev were supposed to be replaced in a few weeks but could extend their mission for a duration of about a year if the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft doesn’t experience any problems.
This emergency has brought to light some management limitations due to the fact that the crews of the Russian and American spacecraft use different space suits. One plan called for Frank Rubio to return to Earth on the Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft, now docked with the International Space Station. However, the seats in SpaceX’s spacecraft are tailor-shaped, making it difficult to carry people other than the original crew in an emergency situation. The situation created by the failure of the Soyuz MS-22 could lead to new procedures that include the possibility of having adaptable seats on the Crew Dragons for contingency situations. Meanwhile, the Soyuz MS-23’s journey was a success and that’s good.