In space, mere inches of material separate you from the entire universe.
And last month, Russian cosmonauts discovered cracks in a segment of the International Space Station (ISS) that showed the potential of growing, raising the question of exposing the internal atmosphere to space, at least, theoretically. And, while NASA has said this structural damage doesn't pose an immediate threat, a former astronaut who addressed Congressional representatives on Tuesday said that these cracks are a "serious issue," according to an initial report from Insider.
"[T]here are probably other cracks we haven't found yet," said former NASA Astronaut Bill Shepherd to a House committee. "As far as I know, the Russian engineers and the NASA engineers — they've analyzed it — they don't exactly understand why these cracks are appearing now."
But if they grow larger, it could cut the lifespan of the ISS shorter than current NASA timelines expect it to maintain operation.
The cracks on the ISS are a 'fairly serious issue'
The former NASA Astronaut Shepherd has flown Space Shuttles into orbit four times, and worked on the ISS in its salad days, when various original modules were still launching. In 2000, he even commanded the first crew to the station. But in the Tuesday meeting, he emphasized that, after attending two meetings with NASA's ISS Advisory Committee, he'd learned more about the damage to the station. While the cracks are "quite small — they look like scratches on the surface of the aluminum plate," he began, "there are probably something like a half dozen of them."
This is serious. A small crack in your window or car might let in some outside air or create a curious whooshing noise on gusty days. But in space, the smallest hole can quickly enlarge under the pressure of all of the air within the station, pressing down with the weight of one atmosphere. But there will almost certainly be no rapid decompression or explosion on the station. Not anytime soon.
The ISS is nearing its final demise
There's still time for officials to figure out what to do, and a major catastrophe is highly unlikely. Shepherd told the House committee that the cracks don't pose an immediate threat to the station, or the astronauts inside. In August, Cosmonaut Vladimir Solovyov told Russia's state-owned news agency RIA that the damage to the station is "bad and suggests that the fissures will begin to spread over time," according to an initial Reuters report. During Shepherd's words with the House committee, he didn't say whether Russia or NASA will continue to analyze the cracks any further. Conventionally, both space agencies take time to carefully examine and repair issues that pose no serious threat to life on board, or operations underway. "Getting to the bottom of this is a fairly serious issue," said Shepherd, in the Insider report. "I don't think the station's in any immediate danger. But before we can clear the station for another so many years of operational use, we should better understand this."
But the fact remains that the ISS is an aging structure that's orbited the Earth for 20 years. Signs of wear are no surprise, especially in the Russian section, which includes some of the oldest modules on the station. There's almost certainly no threat of further structural damage, let alone a colossally explosive decompression ending the lives of every human within and scattering them to suffer a lonely end in the infinite abyssal depths of outer space. But the increasing abundance of damage like the cracks also serves as a sobering reminder: death is just a single breath away. And the ISS is already nearing its demise.