NASA modifies SpaceX's in-orbit Crew-5 capsule for emergency use

The new modification was made following a coolant leak in a Russian Soyuz rocket attached to the International Space Station.
Chris Young
A Dragon capsule in orbit.
A Dragon capsule in orbit.

NASA 

NASA modified the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endurance capsule, which is currently attached to the International Space Station (ISS).

The crew capsule now features another seat and can carry one more NASA astronaut than was originally intended, a NASA blog post reveals.

The space agency modified the Dragon Endeavor capsule as a potential emergency measure after a Russian Soyuz rocket, MS-22, lost its coolant in orbit last month.

What happened to the Soyuz rocket MS-22?

NASA announced yesterday, Jan. 16, that it had successfully moved NASA astronaut Frank Rubio's seat liner from the Soyuz rocket MS-22 over to Endurance. Endurance flew SpaceX and NASA's ongoing Crew-5 mission to the ISS.

MS-22, meanwhile, flew the first NASA astronaut aboard a Russian rocket since the start of Russia's Ukraine invasion. Rubio traveled aboard MS-22 with Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev, Dmitry Petelin in September last year.

On Dec. 15, however, the Soyuz rocket MS-22 lost its coolant after apparently suffering a micrometeoroid or debris strike. The strike caused a visible stream of flakes to flow from the spacecraft, leading to the cancelation of a spacewalk scheduled for mid-December. NASA shared footage of the leak (below) shortly after it was first observed.

The loss of coolant means that MS-22 was deemed unfit to carry the two Russian cosmonauts and one NASA astronaut who traveled aboard the spacecraft back to Earth. It may only be used as a lost resort in case of an emergency, and at risk to its passengers.

The Crew Dragon Endeavor's new seat arrangement

Russia is planning to launch an uncrewed Soyuz rocket to the ISS on February 20 to bring the MS-22 crew back to Earth.

Crucially though, crew capsules also serve as lifeboats in the unlikely event that the ISS's occupants suddenly had to abandon the orbital station. That means that MS-22 could still be called into action if something bad happened to the ISS.

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If such an event were to occur, it would be safer to carry as few astronauts aboard the Soyuz spacecraft as possible, which is why NASA transferred one of the seats over to the Dragon Endeavor capsule.

"The change allows for increased crew protection by reducing the heat load inside the MS-22 spacecraft for cosmonauts Prokopyev and Petelin in the event of an emergency return to Earth," NASA wrote in a previous statement.

Due to the coolant leak on MS-22, its passengers will spend roughly twice the amount of time they were initially scheduled to remain in orbit.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon Endurance capsule launched to the ISS in October last year with only four seats installed to carry four astronauts to the station. However, SpaceX's capsules are designed to carry up to seven crew members, meaning Endurance has the necessary space to carry Rubio if needed.

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