NASA is speaking to SpaceX about the possibility of using a Crew Dragon spacecraft to bring home three International Space Station (ISS) astronauts who currently have no ride back to Earth.
The Soyuz spacecraft that transported American Frank Rubio, and Russians Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, to the ISS in September suffered a serious leak a couple of weeks ago that saw coolant spraying out from the Russian capsule.
NASA’s counterpart, Roscosmos, is still investigating the cause and extent of the damage as it considers how to get the three crewmembers home on or before their scheduled departure date in March.
If the Soyuz passes safety checks, it could still be used to bring the trio home. Alternatively, Roscosmos may be able to send an empty Soyuz to the ISS to collect them.
But if Roscosmos finds its own solutions problematic, NASA could step in.
On Thursday it emerged that the U.S. space agency has been consulting SpaceX on the idea of using one of its Crew Dragon spacecraft to transport Rubio, Prokopyev, and Petelin back to Earth.
“We have asked SpaceX a few questions on their capability to return additional crew members on Dragon if necessary, but that is not our prime focus at this time,” NASA spokeswoman Sandra Jones told Reuters.
It’s not clear if NASA’s inquiry focuses on fitting more seats to the Crew Dragon currently docked at the ISS; the spacecraft brought four Crew-5 astronauts to the orbital outpost in October and isn’t due to return until March. It’s also possible NASA is interested in getting SpaceX to send an empty Crew Dragon to the ISS to rescue the three crewmembers.
Roscosmos chief Yury Borisov said last week that the agency has “no fears” about the safety of the crew.
However, both NASA and Roscosmos will want to resolve the issue as soon as possible, as the ISS currently has only one emergency escape route — the docked Crew Dragon — should the station face a situation in which all seven crewmembers have to evacuate.