NASA may turn to its commercial partner SpaceX to transport three astronauts back to Earth after a Russian Soyuz spacecraft suffered a coolant leak in mid-December.
In a blog post published on Friday, NASA said that it “reached out to SpaceX about its capability to return additional crew members aboard Dragon if needed in an emergency.” At the moment, NASA is investigating whether or not the Soyuz spacecraft would still be capable of carrying astronauts on the trip back from the International Space Station, the space agency added.
The Soyuz spacecraft transported NASA astronaut Frank Rubio and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin to the ISS in September 2022. On December 14, the spacecraft began leaking coolant into low Earth orbit while attached to the ISS. The coolant leak lasted for three hours and was captured on a livestream by NASA TV. The astronauts on board the space station were not harmed, but the fate of the three astronauts that were meant to use the Soyuz spacecraft to return to Earth remains up in the air.
“NASA and Roscosmos are continuing to conduct a variety of engineering reviews and are consulting with other international partners about methods for safely bringing the Soyuz crew home for both normal and contingency scenarios,” NASA wrote in the blog post. The two space agencies are expected to make a final decision regarding the viability of the spacecraft this month.
Roscosmos was hoping to make a decision by December 27, but the space agency announced that it needed more time to evaluate the flight capabilities of the Soyuz spacecraft. The exact reason behind the leak has not been announced, although it may have been caused by a micrometeorite or a tiny piece of space junk that left an 0.8-millimeter-wide hole in the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft.
Rubio was the first NASA astronaut to fly aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket since April 2021, the result of a recent seat-swap agreement between the two space agencies. The arrangement stipulated that a U.S. astronaut would ride aboard a Soyuz capsule in exchange for a Russian cosmonaut boarding a SpaceX Crew Dragon for the very first time. Should the Soyuz spacecraft be deemed unusable for a crew return, NASA may call on SpaceX to send a Crew Dragon to pick up the three astronauts from the ISS and bring them back to Earth. The astronauts are scheduled to return in the spring after having spent six months on board the ISS.