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What does it mean if the hole in the ISS was drilled from the inside?

Updated 4 years ago
Published Dec 26th, 2018 2:36PM EST

There isn’t much contest for the most bizarre space news story of the year. If anyone were to give away such an award it would definitely be handed to the bizarre saga of the leak that spontaneously appeared in the hull of a Soyuz spacecraft that was attached to the International Space Station several months ago. Now, with the ship itself safely back on Earth and the portion of the spacecraft that held the hole jettisoned during reentry, it’s up to Russia to determine how the hole was created, when, and by whom.

The country’s investigation into the strange incident has seemed messy to any outside observer, with statements from officials coming fast and furious in the days following the hole’s discovery and then tapering off rapidly with no resolution. This week, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Prokopyev told reporters that the hunt for the truth was in the hands of the Russian space program, but he also stated definitively that the hole was created from the inside.

Okay, so the hole was drilled from inside the spacecraft and wasn’t drilled into the interior from the exterior, but what does that mean and is it important? Well, at the moment it doesn’t mean a whole lot, especially if you place any weight on early statements from Russian officials who believed the damage was created during the spacecraft’s manufacturing process.

Ships like Russia’s Soyuz go through extensive testing and inspection before they’re allowed to be strapped onto a rocket and shot into space. Everything has to be pretty much perfect for a ship to be cleared to take human passengers, and the fact that the hole wasn’t addressed during the inspection and verification process is obviously peculiar.

Early on, rumblings out of Russia suggested that maybe one of the ISS crew members (a NASA astronaut, perhaps) had drilled the hole in order to cut a mission short so a sick crew member could return. Those assertions were quickly shot down by the crew and Russia rapidly denied suggesting that anyone aboard the ISS was responsible.

Assuming the damage was created when the ship was still on Earth, the fact that it was drilled from the inside might not mean all that much. The hole, which was apparently hidden with a low-quality patch job, ultimately posed no threat the crew, but it’s still a nasty mark on Russia’s Soyuz program which NASA and other international space groups have relied on to get scientists into space.