Late last week, the astronauts aboard the International Space Station woke up to some distressing news: There was a leak somewhere on the station, and air was escaping into space. After an extensive search, the leak was finally found and plugged with tape and gauze, and the air pressure inside the station has been stabilized.
But now that the crisis has passed, there’s a new concern for the astronauts and the space agencies that manage the station. How exactly did that hole get there in the first place? At first, the theory was that a stray micrometeorite collided with the station and punctured a hole in the wall, but examination of the hole itself suggests that it was made by human hands, perhaps deliberately.
Looking at a photo of the hole, it looks less like a puncture caused by a small meteorite and more like a hole that was purposefully drilled. That’s not just a layman’s observation either. Dmitry Rogozin, the Director General of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, suspects that the drilling was done with the intention of causing a leak. “There were several attempts at drilling,” he said in televised comments, by a “wavering hand.”
“What is this?” he asked. “A production defect or some premeditated actions?”
This issue is particularly important for Russia, because the leak was located on a Russian-made Soyuz spacecraft. If that hole was drilled during the manufacturing process, that means Russian manufacturers could be to blame. It’s “matter of honor” for Russia and Soyuz manufacturer Energiya, says Rogozin.
If the cause is a production defect, then it will likely show up on tests of other Soyuz spacecraft here on Earth. Those tests are currently underway, but it’s also possible an employee or contractor drilled that hole either accidentally or deliberately. In this case, the person could have sealed the hole somehow, where it remained hidden for weeks until the vacuum of space caused the sealant to dry up and break apart.
Still another possibility is that the Soyuz was fine when it launched, and the hole was drilled by someone living inside the station. Russian cosmonaut-turned MP Maxim Surayev suspects that this could be the case, the result of an astronaut who couldn’t deal with space life anymore. “We’re all human, and anyone might want to go home, but this method is really low,” he said. “If a cosmonaut pulled this strange stunt—and that can’t ruled out— it’s really bad.”
Regardless of how this hole appeared, it seems more than possible that a human somewhere is responsible. Whether that human currently lives on Earth or in space, and whether that human knew what they were doing, is still unclear.