Russia Could Take Legal Action Against NASA Astronaut Accused of Drilling Hole in Spacecraft

Russia has completed its investigation into a hole discovered on the Soyuz spacecraft while docked at the International Space Station (ISS) in 2018. Criminal charges could now be brought against a NASA astronaut for allegedly sabotaging the craft.

In August 2018, NASA ground control detected depressurization aboard the ISS, which was traced to a 2mm- (1/16 of an inch) wide drill hole in part of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked to the space station at the time. Crew members patched the breach up with epoxy resin for the remainder of the time the Soyuz was docked to the space station.

Now, Russian space agency Roscosmos has told the Russian publication RIA Novosti that the results of an investigation into the hole had been sent to law enforcement officials.

"All results of the investigation regarding the hole in the habitation module of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft were transmitted to Law Enforcement officials," Roscosmos said. No further details were provided.

Soyuz Hole
A hole in the Soyuz spacecraft found in August 2018. Russia is now threatening criminal action against a NASA astronaut they allege was responsible for the hole. NASA

The saga of the Soyuz hole has been ongoing for some time. In 2019, Space reported that then NASA head Jim Bridenstine promised to speak personally with the head of the Russian space agency over the investigation into the hole, following reports that they would not share details of its conclusion.

Bridenstine spoke about the investigation during a Houston energy conference question and answer session in September of that year. He said: "They have not told me anything. I don't want to let one item set [the relationship] back, but it is clearly not acceptable that there are holes in the International Space Station."

In August this year, NASA's head of human spaceflight, Kathy Lueders, responded to allegations that NASA's Serena Aunon-Chancellor, who had flown to the ISS aboard the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft in June 2018, was responsible for the hole.

Lueders wrote on Twitter: "NASA astronauts, including Serena Aunon-Chancellor, are extremely well-respected, serve their country and make invaluable contributions to the agency.

"We stand behind Serena and her professional conduct. We do not believe there is any credibility to these accusations."

Ars Technica reported that while ultimately no ISS crewmembers were endangered by the Soyuz hole, its discovery proved embarrassing for the Russian space agency.

An investigation into the breach had quickly ruled out a strike by a micrometeorite, with some Russian news agencies reporting that the hole was the result of a manufacturing fault.

The accusations surrounding Aunon-Chancellor first circulated on the Russian state news service, TASS, in 2018.

Current NASA Administrator Bill Nelson also spoke out in support of Aunon-Chancellor. He told Ars Technica: "These attacks are false and lack any credibility. I fully support Serena and stand behind all of our astronauts."

Speaking to Russian news agencies in 2019, Roscosmos General Director Dmitry Rogozin said: "We are considering all the theories. The one about a meteorite impact has been rejected because the spaceship's hull was evidently impacted from inside. However, it is too early to say definitely what happened.

"But, it seems to be done by a faltering hand...it is a technological error by a specialist. It was done by a human hand—there are traces of a drill sliding along the surface. We don't reject any theories."

The revelation of Russia considering criminal charges in relation to the hole follows an incident last month in which a Russian test missile destroyed a disused satellite, creating debris that threatened the safety of ISS crewmembers.

Newsweek reported in November that both Russian and American crew members aboard the ISS were forced to take as the debris from the test flew past the station.

"With its long and storied history in human spaceflight, it is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS but also their own cosmonauts. Their actions are reckless and dangerous, threatening as well the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board," Nelson said in response to the missile test incident.

Russia's time collaborating with the U.S. and other countries on the ISS project may soon be drawing to a close. In June of this year, Rogozin indicated that the aging of the ISS and growing maintenance costs could see Russia end its participation in the station as soon as 2025.