Top officials at NASA have pushed back against a messy accusation from Russian media suggesting a US astronaut drilled a hole in the International Space Station (ISS) in an attempt to come home early after suffering from a psychological breakdown.
In an article by Russia's state-owned news agency TASS, a "high-ranking" anonymous employee of Russia's space agency Roscosmos accused US astronaut Serena Auñon-Chancellor of deliberately drilling a hole in the ISS’s Soyuz MS-09 vehicle.
The 2-millimeter drill hole in the Soyuz vehicle was first reported in August 2018 when mission controllers noticed a reduction in pressure in one of the modules. The tiny leak was promptly patched up and repaired, but the cause of the hole remained a mystery. While the US suggested the hole was made during construction back home on Earth, Russian media has previously pointed the blame at US astronauts.
As per the TASS article, Auñon-Chancellor experienced the first-ever deep vein thrombosis, also known as a blood clot, in space in the jugular vein of her neck during her flight on the ISS between June and December 2018. The nameless source at Roscosmos claims this caused her to experience an “acute psychological crisis,” prompting her to create a hole in an attempt to “speed up her return” to Earth.
Huge claims require sturdy evidence, but the Roscosmos source fails to provide any definitive proof to back up the accusation.
The unnamed officials explained that the video camera in this part of the ISS was inexplicably not working at the time and “the Americans refused to pass the polygraph” lie detector. They also say that eight holes were drilled in the module, but only one penetrated the hull. This, they argue, suggests the holes were drilled in weightless conditions by someone with little knowledge of the Soyuz MS-09 vehicle (in other words, not a Russian cosmonaut).
NASA officials have rejected the rumors, supporting Auñón-Chancellor and stating they believe there’s no credibility to the accusation.
"NASA astronauts, including Serena Auñón-Chancellor, are extremely well-respected, serve their country, and make invaluable contributions to the agency," Kathy Lueders, chief of human spaceflight for NASA, tweeted on Friday. "We stand behind Serena and her professional conduct. We do not believe there is any credibility to these accusations."
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson followed up on the tweet, adding: "I whole-heartedly agree with Kathy’s statement. I fully support Serena and I will always stand behind our astronauts."
This is unlikely to be the end of this ever-unfolding spat. The ISS was long seen as an exception to the geopolitical tensions that existed between Russia and the US back on Earth. However, with Russia threatening to pull out of the ISS by 2025 and the growing militarization of space, the future of this amiable relationship remains uncertain.