As It Happens

Space station sabotage claim is bogus, says former NASA engineer

After a small hole is discovered in the wall of the International Space Station — the Russian space agency floats the possibility of space sabotage. But a former NASA engineer and expert in Russian space programs, says that theory is just hot air.

James Oberg dismisses Russian claims a hole was deliberately made in the International Space Station

The small hole discovered at the International Space Station. (NASA via Chris Bergin/Twitter)
Listen6:17

At first, it seemed like a routine fix at the International Space Station.

There was a small hole in the wall of the structure that needed patching — probably caused by a micrometeoroid. But when space agencies discovered the hole was made from inside the station they were left scratching their heads. 

Theories are making the rounds about the cause of the hole. Most of them are fairly benign. But this week, the Russian space agency created a stir after they suggested the hole had been made deliberately.

James Oberg is a former NASA engineer and an expert on U.S. and Russia space programs. Oberg spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the mysterious hole and why the suggestion of sabotage is likely nothing but hot air.

Here is part of their conversation.

Mr. Oberg, sabotage in space sounds like a pretty riveting premise for a sci-fi movie or book. What are the chances, do you think, that it's happened in real life at the International Space Station?

I don't think it's happened. I think the serious question is: what's going on in the mind of the man who suggested it? He's not saying it's the leading theory but he says he's not ruling it out, when anybody in his right mind would rule it out. That's the issue.

The issue is not that there's a sabotage or something funny going on with the men and women in space. It's something going on in the mind of the guy recently given control of the Russian Space Program. And he's a fairly notorious character in Moscow.

Tell me a little bit more about this man, Dmitry Rogozin?

Mr. Rogozin used to be a Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the Defence Industry, which included missiles.  

The Russian [space] program, after the fall of the Soviet Union, has been a much more troubled organization. They haven't had, for example, a fly to the moon or planets in 30 years. They've been flying modifications of vehicles that they first launched almost 50 years ago. So, they're coasting. But they're also falling apart internally in terms of staffing, in terms of corporate knowledge, in terms of their facilities. And, among these struggles, people are starting to look for their own benefits. Now Rogozin is put in charge, and basically, his job is to go there take names and kick butt.

James Oberg says it's highly unlikely that the drill hole was made by anyone aboard the International Space Station. (Alexander Gerst/ESA/Getty Images)

Let's breakdown what Dmitry Rogozin is alleging here. He says it's a small hole discovered from the inside of the International Space Station. The agency says there were several attempts at drilling and the drill appeared to have been held by a wavering hand. So what's he suggesting?

What we are looking at is something inside a cabin on one of the ferry ships — one of the ships that takes people from Earth, to the station, and back to Earth. It's attached to the Space Station. They fly several of them per year. So they have an assembly line that keeps producing them. So, apparently, this was done before the fabrication of this module was completed, down on the ground.

Now, these kind of mistakes — perhaps they drilled in the wrong location. Perhaps it was marked incorrectly. Perhaps he was simply poorly trained. These things, usually when they do happen, the local workmen make a fix, tape it over, and hope for the best. We've had other failures on these kind of vehicles in the past five or ten years. Other things have broken, air has leaked out in other cases. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Head of ROSCOSMOS Supervisory committee, Dmitry Rogozin. (Maxim Shipenkov/AFP/Getty Images)

Can I just be clear, you don't think there's anyway that the hole was drilled in space?

No. I don't think so in space, for a number of reasons. First of all, when you do these kind of activities in space, with a drill in particular, you create metal splinters. You create metal dust. And if in space, unlike on the ground, they don't fall to the surface. They float in the air. If you're working on that kind of deal in space, it's extremely hazardous to your eyes.

Plus, in this case, there was a cloth covering, an insulation blanket covering, that was in place over the drill. And apparently, there was not a hole in that. 

If, as you suggest, this was a mistake that was made during the fabrication process, why do you think the head of the agency is making these allegations against the astronauts? Why not just own up to it? Why does this save any more face?

You've put your finger on the real issue here, which is the new management of their agency. The gentlemen in charge there, Mr. Rogozin, is in some ways, they say, he fancies himself a new Lavrentiy Beria. The man who ran the first Soviet nuclear weapons program, brutally, and was head of the secret police. But he got things done and there's lots of nostalgia in some circles in Moscow for more men like that. He has been talking about spies. He's been arresting people for spying, sending information overseas.

There's all sorts of these, I'm sorry to say, classic Soviet-era paranoia rising now. And the fact that it's concentrated, and coming from, the head of their space program, is extremely troubling. You don't motivate a group by inflicting suspicions on it.

Oberg says Russia is drumming up 'Soviet-era paranoia' by suggesting the hole was deliberately drilled. (Jack Fischer/NASA/Getty Images)

In raising the possibility then, that this just might have happened in space, is he trying to implicate the two Russians, or the three Americans and the German that are onboard?

Well, he's probably suspects them all. The Russians think even the butterflies are spying on them — as John le Carré wrote. So, it's traditional. It's an old Soviet-era tradition and it's raising its head in a very disturbing fashion.

Written by Jeanne Armstrong and John McGill. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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