Nauka Docks, But Bizarre Engine Firings Delay OFT-2 Launch

Nauka Docks, But Bizarre Engine Firings Delay OFT-2 Launch

Russia’s Nauka module docked at the International Space Station this morning, good news after years of delays and a troubled eight-day post-launch journey. But suddenly its engines began firing for unknown reasons, putting the orbiting outpost into the wrong orientation. Ground controllers had to use engines on two other docked vehicles to right the situation. All is well at the moment, but NASA decided to postpone the launch of Boeing’s OFT-2 mission for several days while the bizarre happenings are investigated.

At 20.2 Metric Tons, the Nauka (Science) Multi-purpose Laboratory Module (MLM) is as large as Russia’s other two main space station modules, Zarya and Zvezda, launched in 1998 and 2000.

Originally built as a backup to Zarya, Nauka’s launch was delayed for years as engineers worked to rid the propulsion system of contamination by metallic particles. A successful launch on July 21, initially cheered as a new beginning, soon turned into a perilous eight-day journey when the main engines didn’t work initially. Smaller on-board engines intended to be used only in proximity to the space station had to be called into service to raise the orbit. Problems with deployment of the Kurs antenna needed for rendezvous and docking also had to be overcome.

Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, provided little information about the problems and, at last, this morning Nauka finally reached the ISS, docking at 9:29 am EDT.

The approach had its own moments of drama, amplified by what turned out to be erroneous information spoken by someone in Russia’s control loop and translated by an interpreter during the live broadcast that indicated Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky had to take manual control of the docking because the automated Kurs system failed. In fact, Kurs operated correctly.

Just as everyone began relaxing and the ISS crew resumed work, suddenly, out of the blue, at 12:34 pm EDT, Nauka’s engines sprang to life. During a hastily-called media teleconference this afternoon, NASA ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano said automated systems were first to notice that the ISS’s orientation in space, or attitude, was changing, quickly followed by ground controllers and the ISS crew. Before engines on Zvezda (also called the Service Module) and an attached Russian cargo spacecraft, Progress MS-17, could be used to compensate, the attitude was off by 45 degrees.

During the teleconference, Montalbano said Nauka’s thruster firings exceeded limits on the NASA gyrodynes that ordinarily keep the space station in the correct orientation and attitude control was lost from 12:42-1:29 pm EDT. But he and Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, repeatedly stressed that the crew was never in any danger. Instead, they praised the training, expertise and professionalism of the U.S. and Russian ground control teams and the ISS crew for responding calmly and getting the ISS back to its correct orientation in less than an hour.

Nonetheless, NASA decided this was not the time to send yet another new spacecraft up to ISS. Boeing’s uncrewed Starliner Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) was scheduled for launch tomorrow and docking on Saturday. Instead, they will wait until the next launch opportunity on August 3 at 1:20 pm ET.

Montalbano said the ISS was turning at about half a degree per second and communications were lost for two periods of time, 4 minutes and 7 minutes. A spacecraft emergency was declared, putting ISS at the top of the priority list of NASA’s communications network until the situation was stabilized. NASA will assess whether the ISS suffered any structural damage, but he sees nothing of concern at the moment. He seemed to take it all in stride, pointing to all the simulations ground control teams and ISS crews go through as part of their training just in case there are contingencies like this.

“Until you exhaust all your contingency plans, that’s when you start to  worry. And today we just weren’t there. … The flight control team, while unexpected, they were seeing goodness come to us fairly quickly and were able to get us back to stable attitude like I said within the hour.”

But all that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a heady day for those teams. Zebulon Scoville, one of the NASA Flight Directors working the effort today at NASA’s Mission Control Center (MCC) in Houston, shared his reaction via Twitter.

The ISS is an international partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency. Russia is leading the investigation into what went wrong with Nauka, but NASA emphasized that operating the ISS is a team effort and all are involved.

ISS has been contintually occupied by international crews rotating on 4-6 month tours of duty for more than 20 years. Expedition 65 is currently underway with seven crewmembers: three Americans (Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur and Mark Vande Hei), two Russians (Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov), a Japanese (Aki Hoshide), and a European (Thomas Pesquet, from France).  Hoshide is the ISS  Commander.

ISS Expedition 65 crew (L-R): Pyotr Dubrov (Russia), Shane Kimbrough (U.S.), Megan McArthur (U.S.), Thomas Pesquet (ESA/France), Akihiko Hoshide (Japan), Oleg Novitsky (Russia), and Mark Vande Hei (U.S.). Credit: NASA


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