Earlier this year, Russian space officials were talking about pulling out of the International Space Station when the current agreement with America and other partners expires in 2025, a reflection of souring relations with the United States.
But that didn’t stop them from sending up a new addition to their segment of the station, the Nauka module, whose design and development began more than 20 years ago — long before the current political tensions bubbled up.
On Thursday morning at 9:29 a.m. Eastern time, the module gently docked with the outpost in orbit. Live video footage showed thrusters firing to make small adjustments of Nauka’s course as planet Earth loomed below.
Cheers could be heard over the audio feed as the operation was completed.
“Oleg, congratulations, that was not an easy docking,” Russia’s ground control said to Oleg Novitskiy, the astronaut who managed the docking operation from the space station.
The module fills a gap in the Russian portion of the station for a capsule intended for science experiments, and as such is seen as important for the entire Russian program.
But it will do more than just serve as a laboratory: the 42-foot-long cylinder will provide extra living room, a bed for one cosmonaut, water purifying equipment and electricity from its solar wings. The Russian section of the station had been drawing power from the American side.
What is the Nauka module?
Nauka was originally constructed as a backup for another Russian module, Zarya, and later repurposed. Nauka in Russian means science, fitting its main mission: housing laboratory equipment for experiments.
Beyond that, the module includes a radiation-insulated cabin with additional living room for astronauts, a toilet, new water recycling and air filtering systems, storage space, and a robotic arm provided by the European Space Agency.
With a weight of more than 20 tons and a length of more than 42 feet, Nauka is set to become one of the largest modules on the station. A series of spacewalks will be needed to hook it up to the station’s electrical and command circuits.
Why is Russia adding a new component to the space station?
Development of the module began in the mid-1990s, before the first components of the station went aloft and long before the current political tensions with the United States, which have raised the prospects of Russia quitting the space station by 2025.
Its launch was repeatedly delayed by manufacturing flaws and underfinancing, leaving a gap on the Russian side of the station. Russia is currently the only major operator without its own laboratory module.
Equipped with solar panels, Nauka will also make the Russian orbital segment less dependent on energy coming from the American side. Additional habitable space, including a bed for one astronaut, will make it possible for the permanent Russian crew to be expanded to three members.
What problems did the module have after it launched?
A Russia Proton rocket flawlessly lofted the new module into orbit, but problems appeared almost immediately.
A glitch with the spacecraft’s engines had scientists back on Earth nervous for days, according to the European Space Agency, whose robotic arm is attached to the module. “Adversity insisted on being part of the journey,” the agency said in a statement.
While Nauka will eventually attach to the station, it flew as an autonomous spacecraft for several days in orbit. The module deployed its solar panels and antennas but then failed to fire engines to raise its orbit, a potentially mission-ending problem. Russian engineers managed to correct it, the European Space Agency said, characterizing the episode as a few “hectic days at mission control.”
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, never directly addressed the problems in its updates on the mission, noting only in a news release last Thursday that the module’s thrusters were, in fact, operating. “Telemetry confirmed the module propulsion unit operability,” Roscosmos said in the statement.
Was there any risk to a new module being added to the space station?
Yes. After all, Russia sent a 23-ton object on a collision course with the $100 billion space station. The key to success is that the collision needed to be gentle and in the correct configuration.
What Russia sought to avoid is what happened in 1997, when a Progress cargo rocket crashed into its earlier space station, Mir, rupturing one of the modules and destroying a solar panel.
Since the 1997 accident, docking procedures have become much more sophisticated. At the time, the Progress was under the manual remote control of a Russian astronaut on Mir. The docking of the new Nauka module was entirely autonomous.
And mission managers have had much practice in the 20-some years they have been managing the International Space Station. It was launched in pieces that had to be docked in orbit. Still, engineers are properly paranoid about avoiding even unlikely disasters.
When SpaceX was readying its first mission of its astronaut capsule to the space station — without crew aboard — Roscosmos raised a concern that if the Crew Dragon’s computer failed during approach, the capsule would crash into the space station. (SpaceX’s cargo capsules approached from a different direction so there was no possibility of a collision.)
NASA agreed to implement some precautions — closing hatches on the I.S.S. and readying the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that carries astronauts to and from the outpost for a rapid evacuation, if necessary. The Crew Dragon docking proceeded without a hitch, and before the second Crew Dragon mission, the one taking NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the space station last year, SpaceX made more changes that eliminated even the unlikely possibilities of something going wrong.
Is Russia planning to leave the International Space Station?
Earlier this year, Russian officials said they were considering ending their participation in the International Space Station in 2025, which is when operations are currently set to end.
But American officials are looking to extend the station’s life to 2028, or maybe 2030. They, so far, do not seem concerned. The Russian news agency TASS reported that Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency, said that the exit would be gradual.
Decisions regarding space are rarely sudden.
After all, just three years ago, it was the United States and NASA that were saying they intended to leave I.S.S. by the end of 2024. Space station supporters in Congress, like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, balked, and space agency officials subsequently made clear that this was not a hard deadline and that they would not leave until the commercial stations were operational.
A year later, the Trump administration shifted its space focus to sending astronauts back to the moon, and talk of withdrawing from or retiring the I.S.S. ended.
The Russian officials said they would work toward building a new Russian space station, although they did not say how the country’s chronically underfinanced space program could sustain one. With SpaceX’s Crew Dragon becoming operational, the Russian space program lost one of its main sources of revenue: NASA buying seats on the Soyuz rockets.
NASA is negotiating an agreement with Russia in which NASA astronauts would continue to ride on the Soyuz spacecrafts in exchange for Russian astronauts going to space in SpaceX and Boeing capsules. In that arrangement, no money would be exchanged, but it would help ensure that astronauts become familiar with all of the equipment.
The announcement has also come as tensions have grown between the United States and Russia. In April, President Biden formally blamed Moscow for hacking operations and placed sanctions on Russian entities. Russia has also entered into an agreement with China to work toward a lunar base in the coming decade.
Still, cooperation between the two countries in space goes back decades before the Soviet Union fell apart. Even in 1975, during the Cold War, NASA and Soviet spacecraft docked in orbit, and the astronauts greeted each other. Later, American space shuttles flew to the Russian Mir space station, and several NASA astronauts lived aboard Mir.
What else is happening at the space station this week?
On Friday, Boeing is to launch a do-over of a demonstration of its Starliner spacecraft, which will take NASA astronauts to the space station. This flight will have no humans aboard — just a sophisticated mannequin named “Rosie the Rocketeer.”
Boeing’s first launch of Starliner in December 2019 went awry almost as soon as it entered orbit. Because its internal clock had the wrong time, the capsule calculated it should have been in a different orbit, and the spacecraft squandered its propellant trying to get to where it estimated it should be. As a result, a planned docking at the International Space Station was called off.
An investigation revealed major flaws in how Boeing developed and tested Starliner’s software. Boeing agreed to fly another uncrewed mission to the space station — at no cost to NASA — before the spacecraft is deemed ready for astronauts.