A U.S. astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts have had their stay onboard the International Space Station extended several months after it was determined that their ride home — the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft was not viable for a normal crew return.
The three – Frank Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin — were due to return to Earth in March on the same Soyuz spacecraft that carried them to the station in September 2021. That spacecraft, however, was hit by a tiny meteoroid on Dec. 14, causing a small hole in the exterior radiator and sending coolant into space.
NASA hosted a joint media briefing Jan. 11 to discuss the Roscosmos-led investigation into the incident.
Sergei Krikalev, head of human spaceflight for the Russian Space Agency, said barring an emergency at the space station, it would be too dangerous for the crew to use that capsule to return to Earth.
The Soyuz MS-22 will be replaced by the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft that will launch to the space station without a crew on Feb. 20. Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin will return to Earth in the replacement Soyuz after spending several additional months on the station.
NASA has been working with Roscosmos throughout the investigation and will continue to work with its Commercial Crew Program and Canadian, Japanese, and European partners to refine upcoming flight dates over the next several weeks. NASA also continues its discussions with SpaceX regarding the possibility of using the Crew-5 spacecraft to return additional crew in the event of a station emergency prior to the arrival of Soyuz MS-23.
The original plan was to have MS-23 launch in March with two Russian cosmonauts and one American astronaut to replace the three already onboard. The new crew will now have to wait until late summer or early fall, when another capsule is ready. Russia plans to eventually bring the damaged capsule back to Earth with only science samples on board.
“Right now, the crew is safe on board the space station,” said NASA’s space station program manager Joel Montalbano. “There’s no immediate need for the crew to come home today.”
During the Jan. 11 briefing, Montalbano said the three crew members took the news in stride.
“I may have to find some more ice cream to reward them,” on future cargo deliveries he said.
Meanwhile, NASA and SpaceX are prepared to launch the Crew-6 mission soon after Soyuz MS-23, incorporating the manifest changes previously mentioned. NASA still plans on having a direct handover between the Crew-5 and Crew-6 missions.
Besides Prokopyev, Petelin and Rubio, the space station is home to NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada; Russian Anna Kikina and Japan’s Koichi Wakata. The four rode up on a SpaceX capsule last October.